Say this, not that: A guide to inclusive language in the workplace

Jun 19, 2024

4 mins

Say this, not that: A guide to inclusive language in the workplace
Kaila Caldwell

US Editor at Welcome to the Jungle


Language is a powerful vehicle for change, the power of words can either build bridges or walls. Choosing how we communicate can profoundly affect those around us, particularly in how we support the LGBTQ+ community. Inclusive language goes beyond contemporary jargon; it’s a potent tool that validates individuals’ identities, helping everyone feel acknowledged and integrated into the team. According to the Linguistic Society of America, using gender-neutral language can even help reduce implicit bias and promote gender equality.

While most people avoid using overtly offensive language, many do not realize that everyday expressions can still make colleagues feel uncomfortable or excluded in the workplace. Inclusive language includes using gender-neutral pronouns such as “they/them” for nonbinary people, avoiding heteronormative assumptions and using terms that encompass the full spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations. Adopting more inclusive language promotes dialogue and spurs change toward a genuinely inclusive workspace.

Let’s commit to refining our language to be more inclusive with guidance from Nate Shalev, our DEI Lab expert in inclusive language and founder of Revel Impact, a consultancy specializing in social impact. Find out how these minor adjustments to our speech can lead to significant, positive transformations in our professional environments.

Give pronouns space in the workplace

Pronouns offer an easily accessible opportunity to be inclusive in our language. They are not just placeholders in grammar, but can be a way to affirm someone’s identity. Shalev points out that these language elements are inherently gendered in English, offering a unique way to affirm someone’s gender identity through our speech. When gender-specific language is used, addressing someone by the correct pronouns is more than a formality—it is a fundamental act of respect and recognition.

Even if you understand why inclusive pronouns are important, you still might have some questions:

1. What if I don’t know someone’s pronouns?

Introduce yourself with your own pronouns first, giving them space to do the same. Normalize including pronouns in your email signature, on video calls, and on name tags. This practice helps create an environment where everyone feels seen and respected and doesn’t put pressure on someone who might not be ready to share pronouns yet.

2. What if I get someone’s pronouns wrong?

“It happens!” Shalev says. “Correct yourself and move on. When you overly apologize, the conversation becomes about pronouns when you really just want an update on a deliverable.”

3. I can’t seem to use “they,” what do I do?

“We use ‘they’ to refer to one person all the time without realizing it,” explains Shalev. “If it feels off for you to use ‘they’ intentionally, practice when the person isn’t around until it feels more comfortable.”

Adopting gender-neutral language

Language has historically been steeped in racial and gender stereotypes, which can unintentionally perpetuate exclusion and discomfort. For instance, using “guys’’ to address a mixed group assumes a default male presence, excluding or diminishing others. Similarly, assuming someone has a husband or wife based on their gender presumes heterosexuality and can alienate individuals who might prefer “partner” or “spouse.” In the same vein, the classic formal greeting, “ladies and gentlemen’’ presumes binary gender identities. Try using other honorific phrases like “distinguished guests,” or “esteemed colleagues.”

“Gender isn’t bad! It’s a defining part of who we are. If you know someone’s gender, use it. If you don’t know, reconstruct the sentence to remove gender,” Shalev suggests. For instance:

  • “He should submit feedback: could be rephrased to “Feedback should be submitted.”
  • Or, “The boy arrived” could be rephrased to “The student arrived.”

Rethink classic phrases

So, we’ve compiled a list of phrases you might inherently use that need rethinking to foster a more inclusive environment. For example:

  • Instead of saying “Thank you, ma’am/sir,” just say “Thank you.”
  • “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen” could simply be “Welcome, guests!”
  • Why say “lady boss” when you could just say “boss.”
  • Instead of saying “husbands and wives are invited,” say “families/spouses are invited.”
  • Instead of “hi guys,” say “hi, everyone/all.”
  • Instead of saying a job title like chairman, say chairperson.

Challenge gender stereotypes

Many common expressions perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes, justify unacceptable behavior, or diminish sincere emotions based on gender expectations. Try actively rethinking and replacing such phrases. For instance:

  • Say “be brave” instead of “man up”
  • Say “attention seeker,” not “drama queen”

These changes might seem small, but they help to create a more inclusive environment by not making gender a focal point when it’s not needed.

A trans-inclusive language guide

Language evolves to account for the needs of the people who use it. Trans-inclusive language respects and reflects the experiences of trans individuals. Shalev offers these insights:

Respecting privacy in medical contexts

“Even if you are genuinely curious, questions about someone’s medical history and body are intensely personal,” Shalev warns. “A trans person is their gender no matter what chromosomes, genitals, or hormones they have. So, these questions can feel invalidating and intrusive.” Before asking about someone’s transition, consider if the answer will help you understand them better and if you have the relationship to ask such intimate questions. Respecting privacy is essential to creating a safe workplace.

Affirming gender in transition

A trans person may take legal, medical, or social actions to affirm their identities, or they may not. All trans experiences deserve to be respected. Use language that affirms their gender by rephrasing these expressions:

  • Phrases “Born as a man/woman” or “biological man/woman” should be worded as “Sex assigned at birth.”
  • “Sex change” or “sex reassignment” should be worded as “gender affirmation.”

From faux pas to progress

“Our society is built and functions on systems of oppression. You are trying to disrupt these systems. You are going to get it wrong sometimes,” Shalev reminds us. Mistakes are inevitable, but how we handle them matters. Don’t get defensive. Acknowledge what happened, apologize (without overdoing it), and commit to doing better in the future.

Inclusive language is a journey, not a destination. It’s about being mindful, intentional, and willing to learn from our mistakes. Balancing respect for gender identity with the need for gender-neutral language can be challenging. Still, by rephrasing sentences to remove unnecessary gender references, we ensure our language is inclusive of everyone, especially our LGBTQ+ friends, family, and colleagues. Here’s to a more inclusive future, one phrase at a time!

Photo: Thomas Descamps for Welcome to the Jungle

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