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Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace: An Introduction

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

Written by Katharine Park, Advocacy Lead, Wellness Works Canada

It is no secret that being a good employer offers a competitive advantage. Engaging employees in initiatives surrounding their health, safety, and well-being helps ensure that their needs are being appropriately addressed. One way to promote effective collaboration and show respect is to encourage the use of inclusive language in the workplace.


Why does language matter?

Despite having the best intentions, our words can unknowingly exclude others (read more on implicit bias here). It is important to work on developing our awareness of how our use of language may lead to discomfort and inequalities in the workplace.


What are some strategies we can use to shift our language?

Shifting our language requires an open mind, awareness, and continuous reflection. Some questions you can begin asking yourself are:

  • Are referring to a person’s age, ethnic background, culture, etc. necessary?

  • Are any metaphors or comparisons I am using demonstrating cultural misappropriation or promoting a stereotype or negative view of a social group? (E.g., using the phrase “lowest man on the totem pole” to indicate hierarchy.)

  • Does an individual or group have preferred terms? What might they be?

  • Am I being open-minded and receptive to learning more?


Practical actions you can take to promote inclusive language in your workplace:

How to be more gender-inclusive

  • Include your pronouns when you introduce yourself (e.g., “Hi! My name is Tom! My pronouns are he/him”).

  • Encourage the indication of pronouns in email signatures.

  • Include options beyond male and female on documents that require this information.

  • A variety of French-language resources can be accessed here.

  • A more in-depth guide on language diversity can be accessed here.


Gender stereotyping is the generalization or the preconception of certain attributes, characteristics, or roles that are thought to be possessed by men or women. Examples would include “the teacher and her students” or “the doctor and his patients” when making generalized statements.


Tip: Consider normalizing the use of more gender-neutral terms.

Instead of…

Say This Instead!

“Ladies and gentlemen” or “you guys”

“Hello, everyone!” or “hi friends, folks, ya’ll…”

“His and her job responsibilities are…”

"Job responsibilities include…”

Other ways to use inclusive language in the workplace

  • Use inclusive terms. For example, current societal norms often favour heterosexual-centred language. Swap terms like “husband/wife” for “partner/accompanying person.”

  • Put the person first. We should always recognize the individual first. For example, replace phrases like “disabled person” for “person who uses a wheelchair.”

  • Work to reduce stigma. We need to ensure everyone feels valued. Examples include avoiding classifying someone without a disability as ‘normal.’ Refrain from referring to people as “crazy, insane, or OCD,” denigrating people experiencing mental health issues.

  • Avoid assumptions and unnecessary identity references. For example, do not assume that people of a similar ancestral background share similar traits and interests. Culture and identity are fluid, dynamic, and complex.


Indigenous Peoples

  • All Canadians have a responsibility to learn the realities of systemic racism and the impacts of colonialism that have affected many Indigenous people and continue to exist today.

  • The term “Indigenous Peoples” represents many diverse subgroups, including Métis, Inuit, and First Nations. Generally, it is preferred over “Aboriginal” or “Native.” Above all, respect self-identification.

  • To learn more about history, the University of Alberta offers a free online course. Click here.


What other high-level actions can leaders do to support a more inclusive environment?

  • Make the topic of inclusion at the forefront of your onboarding process.

  • Ensure policies list desired behaviours and guidance if the ill-treatment of an employee occurs. Avoid gendered language in documents (e.g., rather than “he/she” use “they”).

  • If it is within your organization’s capacity, designate an all-gender restroom.


What do you do if you make a mistake?

Nobody is perfect, and we all make mistakes. The reality is that a learning curve exists. Reconciliation, however, is an important step in moving forward.

  • Rather than making an excuse or being defensive, take accountability for your error.

  • Apologize and take the time to understand where you went wrong.

  • Move forward with the commitment to change and improve.


Final Tip: Language is fluid and ever-changing! Consider creating and sharing a live document or a “code of kindness” offering tips on using inclusive language that can be collaborated on by all and continuously be updated!


To view all references, click on the link below.

References
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About the Author

Katharine is a second-year graduate student completing a master's in public health at the University of Alberta with a specialization in health promotion. Her passions include workplace, newcomer, and women's health. During her free time, Katharine enjoys being out in nature (walking, biking) and spending time with her rabbit.


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