Why your organisation needs an inclusive language policy

Many organisations are only paying lip service to inclusion, with outdated, discriminatory and inappropriate language often standing in the way of creating a safe and open culture

Language is a tool for communication, and in the workplace it can convey extremely important information about whether a company has considered the different needs and experiences of its employees.

But it’s not just the content of the speech which says this; it’s also the tone and phrasing. Creating and enforcing an inclusive language policy may seem daunting, with accepted terms appearing to change every day, but it’s essential if you want to create an environment where everyone is able to contribute their talents to drive organisational performance.

But how do we define inclusive language? There’s a common perception that it means tiptoeing around issues, never referring to a person’s gender, race, religion or any other characteristic for fear of offending them. Really, it’s quite the opposite: it seeks to acknowledge and celebrate diversity, considering with sensitivity the experiences of all people.

Essentially, all it means is avoiding words, phrases or ways of communicating that are harmful or exclusionary, or reflect and propagate stereotypes and prejudices.

Fostering inclusive communication internally and externally

When setting up inclusive language guidance, a company must consider the language used in both external and internal communications. In the former, the benefit of using inclusive language is obvious: it helps foster an image of your company as forward thinking and may even attract a more diverse range of talent.

However, that image won’t be maintained if official internal communications use outdated or discriminatory language. This would be a clear sign that the company’s progressive image is just for show and not indicative of a genuine commitment to inclusiveness.

Casual interactions between employees are the hardest area in which to enforce an inclusive language policy. But simply making sure the guidelines are comprehensive and reporting procedures are clear will help foster an open, trusting workplace culture. This will help encourage employees to report inappropriate language or even just have a frank conversation with their colleagues when an issue arises.

Setting up clear guidelines on how to keep language inclusive will help to attract and retain a varied workforce

How an inclusive language policy can help attract and retain talent

Though setting up guidelines to cover all these situations may be a daunting task, it’s never been more important. People entering the workforce now, or in the first few years of their career, highlight good diversity and inclusion policy as one of their top priorities, and one of the largest factors in whether they decide to stay at an organisation long term.

Around two thirds of respondents to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, which also covers the younger Generation Z, feel that business leaders are only paying lip service to diversity and inclusion. The survey also shows there is a “very strong correlation between perceptions of workforce diversity and loyalty”, as 69 per cent of employees at organisations which they perceive as diverse are intending to remain there for at least five years. Only 27 per cent plan to stay that long if they don’t see their organisation as diverse.

While a diversity and inclusion policy can’t start and end with language, it is often the way potential employees form an impression of a company. Jay, a writer and project manager in London (name changed), has often turned down opportunities for this reason. Jay has a chronic condition, which means they need a workplace to be responsive to their health needs, and has noticed that the language used reflects whether this will be possible.

“If an interviewer’s language indicates to me that their company would not be receptive to somebody with my condition, I don’t accept the offer. You can often tell whether an organisation has clear policies just through the tone and phrasing they use,” says Jay. “If somebody’s going to be flippant about how they view health, that comes out in how they talk to you.”

More than words: context and tone are vital parts of inclusive language

Of course, inclusive language guidance isn’t only key to attracting the best talent, but also to retaining it. At Jay’s previous employer, uninformed and discriminatory language was one of the factors which led them to leave.

“The most significant example was after I’d had a very bad run of health and was away for just over a week. When I came back, I was called into a meeting with HR and my line manager in which they asked whether I ‘had plans to be sick again that year’. People often don’t realise that a lot of the ways we talk about illness perpetuate the idea of sickness as something that you somehow invite; if you’re sick a lot of the time, you must just not be trying hard enough,” Jay says.

As this example shows, inclusive language is not just about avoiding slurs. It’s also about giving people tools to facilitate more productive conversations. The language used by Jay’s managers clearly indicated a misunderstanding of chronic health conditions and lack of clear guidance around how to deal with them.

How can you create an inclusive language policy?

So how can companies go about setting up guidelines on inclusive language? Wellcome, a research charity, offers a good case study.

“At Wellcome, our goal is to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive,” says Kalaiyashni Puvanendran, diversity and inclusion project officer. “Great ideas come from a diverse range of people with different perspectives and backgrounds, so diversity and inclusion are fundamental to delivering our mission.”

As you may expect from a workplace with a dedicated diversity and inclusion team, Wellcome is working hard to embed inclusion in its workplace culture. In fact, it was this awareness of diversity which prompted the creation of the guidelines.

“In the diversity and inclusion team, we often received queries from colleagues who were concerned about using language that could accidentally offend someone,” says Ms Puvanendran. “It’s something my team and I worry about too. But that worry can stop people from engaging in important conversations. We designed the guidance to facilitate conversations around diversity and inclusion, not block them. It’s not a rulebook, but a resource that helps colleagues navigate the potential complexities of inclusive language.”

Inclusive language seeks to acknowledge and celebrate diversity, considering with sensitivity the experiences of all people

As language shifts, so too must the policy 

They built the guidelines around the nine characteristics protected in UK law under the Equality Act of 2010, plus socio-economic status. Each section gives an overview of the topic, suggestions for and explanations of language to use and avoid, and resources for readers who’d like to know more.

It’s also not a static document, but will be updated based on employee feedback, changes in equality law and general shifts in how we use language. Importantly, it was set up with input from a wide range of colleagues and networks, and the explicit support of senior management.

“The co-creation of the guidance was a major part of why it went down well with staff. So far, feedback has been positive and over half our workforce accessed the guidance within the first two weeks of publication,” says  Ms Puvanendran.

Whether or not there is a formal policy, people are communicating within and on behalf of an organisation, and the language they use will have a real effect. Setting up clear guidelines on how to keep language inclusive will help to attract and retain a varied workforce, and therefore a varied range of skills and perspectives.

Diversity is a fact of life, and by making a workplace feel safe and welcoming, it can be a huge asset to a company.