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How to Reinforce a People-first Culture at Work By Prioritizing Inclusive Language


Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is undergoing a sea change, especially when it comes to language. Gravity Research and Fortune report that terms like “DEI,” “diversity,” and “inclusion” in Fortune 100 companies decreased by 22%, with more neutral terms like “belonging” increasing by 59%. Additionally, the use of the term “diversity officer” fell by 49% year-over-year.

 

The DEI language pendulum creates a whole host of cultural challenges. Employees, especially younger ones, are using language like “oppression” and openly naming their many identities while at the same time leaders — often facing pressure from funders, shareholders, or even state attorneys general — avoid using phrases as generic as “diverse representation.”

 

Employees who hold specific religious or political beliefs cite some DEI terms as offensive or exclusive to them in their beliefs, which raises the question of who inclusive language is meant to serve. As our organizations continue promoting “bringing your whole self to work” and “authenticity” as values, employees across the board are feeling confused, suspicious, and disillusioned.

 

How, then, can leaders navigate this fraught environment to build and reinforce a positive environment at work?

 

The answer is not to stop talking, but to get practical. Words do matter; without them, most of us cannot do our jobs at all. Leaders can reinforce a people-first culture at work by first setting specific expectations and guidelines with their teams on the dos and don’ts, and then, make sure those expectations are followed. In my experience working with hundreds of organizations across all industries and sizes, there are four guidelines that tend to work almost anywhere.

 

  • People-First Language: As much as possible, avoid defining people by a specific identity first. For example, you would say “Alida is a person with a disability” rather than “a disabled person.” People-first language literally means starting with someone’s identity as a person first, making them the true subject of the sentence, rather than a specific identity identifier such as a disability.

  • Avoid Assumptions: If you are talking about a group of people, the tendency to assume comes naturally. This, however, ends up signaling who is in the “in group” and who in the “out group.” Instead of making a blanket statement like, “I know Latinos are family-oriented,” ask the person you work with about their family, allowing them to provide their personal perspective. Always offer them an opportunity to pass on answering if they prefer.

  • Self-Identification: Let people identify themselves how they choose. Make it clear that employees are to honor these self-identification labels among their colleagues, but do not have to adopt them as their own. Make all self-identification optional.

  • Cultural Awareness: Idioms are the bane of nearly every DEI practitioner's existence. They are often offensive or rooted in cultural stereotypes that negatively characterize whole groups of people. Even when they aren’t overtly appropriating a specific culture, they can prove difficult for people who are not native English speakers. As much as possible, avoid idioms in favor of more descriptive, factual terms. You are not someone’s “guru,” but their guide. We will not “huddle up,” but rather “have a meeting.”

 

Ultimately, there is no perfect glossary or formula for inclusive language, but by thinking about what matters most to the employees you work with and honoring their human dignity, you can promote a healthy culture that supports many different types of people.

 

Alida Miranda-Wolff is a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) practitioner committed to teaching love and cultivating belonging. She is an Amazon-bestselling author of two books with HarperCollins Leadership, Cultures of Belonging: Building Inclusive Organizations That Last (February 2022) and The First-Time Manager: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (May 2024). She is the founder and CEO of Ethos, a full-service DEIB and employee advocacy firm, which serves hundreds of clients across the world. She hosts Care Work with Alida Miranda-Wolff, a podcast about what it means to offer care for a living.

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