The AltoPartners Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion : If your inclusive language guide doesn’t come with a trigger warning, chances are it’s not doing its job!

June 01, 2023 Share this article:

DE&I Inclusive Language

Eight tips for using language to shift perceptions and promote cohesion in the workplace.

In March this year, Oxfam updated its inclusive language guide aimed at helping staff and others in the development sector “build a survivor-centred, intersectional, anti-racist, and feminist vocabulary.” Almost immediately, detractors accused Oxfam of ‘wokery gone mad’, prompting Oxfam GB CEO, Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, to pen a thoughtful response to critics, examining what it was about the guide that had touched such a raw nerve among some English speakers.

Mind you, any guide that comes with a Trigger Warning and a Note on Discomfort (as does the Oxfam document) is bound to be contentious. This goes way beyond HR correcting gendered job titles (chair, not chairman, and spokesperson instead of spokesman), and ensuring that job profiles and job ads do not inadvertently exclude certain groups of people by using coded language (think ‘digital native’ which is code for young; ‘energetic’ – able-bodied; ‘polished’ – posh school; and ‘caring’ – female). Instead, the guide goes to the heart of what it means to live and work in an environment that was never designed with you in mind, and as a consequence where you feel the need to code-shift or deny your own lived reality in order to fit in.

By necessity, therefore, inclusive language guides are aimed at those doing the excluding, whether implicitly or explicitly. In high and middle-income countries, this means having to deal with concepts such as privilege and white, cis-gender male privilege in particular. See note on discomfort below.

As the guide points out, language has the power to include and exclude by reinforcing the prejudices that led to the power imbalances that spawned these stereotypes in the first place: “Only by naming, understanding and tackling the root causes of inequality and poverty that are endemic in our culture can we create genuine change and work towards real equality.”

It’s probably also why the guide was celebrated by the people it was intended for: those in the not-for-profit (NPO) sector actively working to make the world a kinder, more cohesive place, as well as many programme participants – formerly known as beneficiaries, a descriptor that has made way for ‘people we work with, programme participants, and service users’.

The difference is subtle but important: “The people we work with are not passive beneficiaries: they receive support to realise their rights to food, shelter, water, asylum, political participation etc. but are agents of their own development,” explain the authors.

Ditto the concept of the field trip, long accepted as part of the international NGO lexicon. To quote from the guide: “In Oxfam’s context, the phrase ‘field trip’ was previously used to describe visits to lower-income countries, whereas a trip to New York, for example, would not be considered a ‘field visit’. By using this kind of language we reinforce colonial attitudes that are contrary to the values and aims of our organization.” In its place, the guide suggests that employees refer instead to business trips or talk about specific locations or destinations.

The key word here is context. Not every industry will need to address the root causes of poverty in its inclusivity guide. The question every leader should, however, be asking themselves is, does the language we use reflect our values and our work? Whether you are starting out on this journey or further down the DE&I road, here are eight tips for using language to improve inclusivity and belonging in the workplace.

1. Don’t skirt around the big issue in your industry or sector.

Oxfam recognised that the core descriptor for the sector it works in, i.e., development, is ‘problematic and reminiscent of its colonial roots’. Bravely, the guide acknowledges the bias implicit in describing one half of the world as developing and the other as developed, and the descriptor’s failure to recognise “the inequality and poverty that exist within wealthier countries or the fact that wealth is based on colonial histories, or the fact that wealth is based on unequal systems that make it difficult for other countries to ‘develop’…”. The guide suggests avoiding terms such as ‘international development sector and international aid sector’ in favour of international NGOs and civil society. In the business world, if the big issue in your sector is a culture of toxic masculinity (you know who you are), that needs to be addressed head-on. Shrugging and saying that’s just how these bros are won’t solve the problem.

2. Acknowledge that it’s a journey.

Equally, though, don’t feel compelled to prescribe a solution to problematic ideas with deep roots. In response to the development conundrum above, Oxfam states: “We recognize that not using these phrases requires a substantial shift and the use of terms that may not be recognized more widely in the sector or in international affairs more generally. We will continue to look for suitable alternatives.”

3. When in doubt, ask.

Exercise cultural humility. Don’t assume you know how different groups identify themselves. For example, various groups differ on whether they prefer person-first or identity-first language. If in doubt, ask. Employee resource groups are an excellent tool in this regard. If, for example, you’re unsure whether to refer to people of Latin American descent in your organisation as Latine or Latinex, ask, and then respect their preference.

4. Focus on people, not labels.

Use people-first language. For example, rather than talking about the disabled (a label), refer to people with disabilities, a description that acknowledges that they are first and foremost people, and are not defined by their disability. Similarly, referring to someone as a survivor of rape gives agency to people who have experienced rape and avoids disempowering them by labelling them as rape victims. The same principle applies to TB sufferers (rather use people with TB), migrants (asylum seekers, displaced persons, people forced to flee), or people infected by HIV (people living with HIV).

5. Allow for discomfort.

Embrace that you are a learner, not an expert, when it comes to understanding other people, their cultures, and their experiences – especially if they are from a marginalised group. This requires challenging some of your own biases which can be deeply unsettling, especially if you have never previously considered that the words you use might be part of the problem.

6. Prioritise safety.

Just as honest conversations can cause discomfort, they can also be deeply triggering for people that have previously experienced the types of discrimination your guide refers to. Oxfam commits to taking “care to ensure that our language does not put people at risk or cause harm, and always supports the safety of people and communities affected by discrimination”.

7. Read the room. Language is context- and audience-specific and shifts between time and place.

A good language guide will help employees to design communication that is fit for purpose by making everyone more thoughtful about the words they use.

8. Be prepared to get it wrong.

The American Psychological Association advises that in the event of being called out by someone for an offensive or thoughtless comment, always think impact over intention: “Everyone makes mistakes – we are human. When you learn you have caused someone harm with your words, decentre yourself and focus not on what your intentions were, but on the impact on that person or group. Listen carefully to understand how it affected them, give a genuine apology, and commit to doing better.” Social media is full of people being roasted for persisting in explaining what they ‘were only trying to say’. Don’t be that person.