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Inclusive language in the workplace – do you need more of it?

As we move towards a more equal, tolerant world, even little changes like inclusive language can help society as a whole progress.

Words at Work: Inclusive workplace language

Australia’s largest airline Qantas has recently made headlines for its commitment to combating exclusionary language, releasing an employee information pack called Words At Work.

While a select few have complained about the move (some expressing their bewilderment at the suggestion that these gender-specific words are “apparently eroding workplace harmony”), there’s evidence to suggest that creating an inclusive workplace has obvious benefits.

Increases in morale, productivity and company loyalty are just a few of them.

Giam Swiegers, CEO of Aurecon, is one executive who has committed to the #WordsAtWork campaign, saying: “Inclusive leadership and inclusive language gets to the heart of creating diverse organisations.”

Here are few tips on how to make your workplace more inclusive and productive

Don’t say:

We promoted an Asian employee to the new managerial role

Do say:

We promoted an employee to the new managerial role

Gratuitous descriptions of ethnicity usually don’t add to a conversation, and only serve to subconsciously reinforce the ‘otherness’ of minorities. This goes for gender, sexuality, disability, and so on. Would you say it in earshot of the person you’re talking about? Probably best to leave it, then.

Don’t say:

Any employee may ask his manager for sick leave

Do say:

Employees may ask their manager for sick leave

Use of male pronouns to refer to an unspecified group of people is a longstanding practice, but it’s a bit of an old one. It implies that the ‘employees’ are predominantly male, and suggests the female employees aren’t as important. Use a plural pronoun, or use the passive voice (“Managers can be asked for sick leave”).

Don’t say:


Do say:

Their name

Pet names are fine from partner to partner, but few offices are comprised solely of married couples, so this can be patronising in the workplace. This is particularly problematic given relationships of power and privilege. A male senior executive calling a female intern “love” can feel dismissive at best, and at worst like harassment.

Don’t say:

Spokesman or sculptress

Do say:

Spokesperson or sculptor

Gender-specific terms can again reinforce the idea of maleness as being the norm, while a female-specific term can imply that for women, gender is their most important characteristic, while their abilities or profession come second. You probably wouldn’t say, “This is Janine. She’s a woman. And also a police officer, I suppose.”

Don’t say:

I’ve never had a problem with it

Do say:

I’m willing to respect other’s opinions

Even if you are part of a disadvantaged group, and have no problem with exclusionary language, that doesn’t negate the experiences of those who do have problems with it. The experience varies from person to person, and we should be happy to accommodate others.

This list is not exhaustive, but many resources exist online to help people take note of unconscious bias. For example, this guide is relatively comprehensive.
One helpful tip is just to ask – if you’re not sure if your language is accidentally exclusionary or offensive, then check. It’ll probably be different on a case-by-case basis.

Most importantly, try to be aware of when you might use non-inclusive language. For most people, it’s a subconscious thing, and isn’t deliberate or malicious. But just taking notice of one’s own behaviour can quickly lead to improvement.

Opinion writer Wendy Kay tries to get her head around Qantas’ Words at Work initiative, starting off with an apology for saying ‘Hey guys’ when addressing a mixed-sex group.

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