Scientists still debate when we as humans first started using words, with estimates ranging from two million years ago to 50,000 years ago. Whenever it was that we first started using language, however, we have been adding and removing words, idioms, and phrases to an ever-changing vocabulary. According to university language professors, language today is changing at a more rapid rate than ever before, in part because social media allows for new words to be coined and discarded much faster.
In many ways, this fast pace of change is an exciting way to ensure we move towards a more equitable and inclusive use of language. One opportunity we have is to retire some words that can cause pain.
If your organization is creating a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategy, you will want to spend some time thinking about the words you use. If you’re interested in building a diverse team, the language your team and organization uses, both in speech and in writing, can impact who feels they belong — and who may feel excluded.
Why Does Language Matter When It Comes to Initiating DEI Best Practices in the Workplace?
If you are building a team that better reflects the diversity of your community, words matter. For example, what happens when someone talks about diversity hiring and this is (incorrectly) understood to mean that diversity hiring initiatives will focus only on diversity rather than skill and qualifications? This can mean new team members are treated differently.
Here’s a worse scenario: what if you hire a new professional for your team and someone calls them a “diversity hire,” suggesting they were hired for something besides their talent, skills, and experience? This situation can make a new team member feel singled out and unwelcome. It can make someone question their new position, even when they are extremely talented and bring an abundance of skills and ability to the table.
Words can cause real harm. Studies have shown that negative words can trigger hormones that create anxiety and stress in test subjects. Negative words can actually harm structures in your brain that impact emotions, decision-making, and memory. They can affect sleep, rates of happiness, and appetite, so negative language can in fact harm your employees. Someone who is called a “diversity hire” or has other negative language directed at them can experience genuine hurt.
Language also matters because hiring with DEI in mind is not enough. You can institute the most innovative diversity hiring initiatives, but to truly create the workplace you want, you need to make sure employees want to stay. And one way to do that is to ensure the language you use includes everyone and makes everyone feel part of the team.
What Kind of Language Helps Build a Diverse Team?
The reality is, you don’t want to hire a person for diversity. You want to build a diverse and inclusive team that pulls together and brings innovation and resilience to your company. You can do that by using language that makes it clear all qualified workers are invited to apply and all employees are valued. You may want to use specific kinds of words for that:
- Enthusiastic language, including warm, human language shows you value all talent. It can also help you stand out from job descriptions, corporate content, & online experiences which are filled with jargon, & which can be alienating to some team members.
- Honest language makes you trustworthy. If you are just at the start of your DEI journey, being upfront about this fact & sharing your goals & what you have started changing can be helpful, especially if you can’t yet show that your workplace is diverse. Your team is more likely to pull together if they see you’re aware of the issue & are working to address it.
- Specific words add clarity. If you are hiring & are interested in hearing from candidates from different races or genders, define what you are looking for. If you need someone with a specific skill, state what that skill is, rather than requesting certifications or degrees.
You might also want to think not just about the words you use, but also when you use them. You use language in job ads, your website and online presence, in company reports, in casual conversations around the office, in emails you send, and more. You will want to consider the language you use in all these formats.
What Kind of Language Can Be Alienating, & What Can Be Done About It?
HR and decision-makers sometimes have an idea of what the “right” team members should be like. Often, these ideas can be based on who had a specific role last or who might traditionally fill the role, and this can mean organizations don’t stay open to new ways of approaching ideas and processes. Being rigid in “how things are done here” can also lead to alienating language, such as:
- Specific pronouns. Using just “he” can make it seem as though only men work in your workplace. Even using “him or her” can make non-binary employees feel less welcome. An inclusive substitute, such as “they/them” can work, or you can replace pronouns entirely, so instead of saying “We need him to work on this project” you can say “We need a marketing professional to work on this project.”
- Language that stresses someone’s characteristics rather than talent. As we’ve already covered, the term “diversity hire” can make someone feel diminished. By the same token, referring to people who are living with a disability as “brave” or “special” can make them feel singled out. One way to make team members feel included is to focus on their skills & contributions.
- Language that excludes workers living with disability. Instead of being casual about asking workers to drive, consider initiatives that allow for carpooling or public transit, if appropriate. If everyone takes a turn picking up coffees, for example, & some workers can’t drive to the shop, consider having coffees delivered. If part of a role involves lifting objects, make a dolly or other supports available to make sure everyone can lift objects easily, without feeling singled out. This doesn’t only help anyone living with mobility challenges, but can help all employees. It can be beneficial for anyone who hurts their back or who is pregnant & can’t safely lift heavy objects. Inclusion truly can benefit all workers.
- Words that are culturally hurtful. Words like “pow wow” & “tribe” have been used for years, but they turn important cultural ideas for some people into casual conversation. Similarly, “grandfathered in” dates back to discriminatory laws. Make it a point to replace these words with specific, accurate terms in conversation and in company documentation.
It can be helpful to realize that in many cases the words used are not intended to hurt. In fact, all of us carry unconscious bias, and behavioral scientists believe it comes down to the way our brain’s biology works. To deal with the constant influx of data, our brains simplify and categorize information in a way that allows bias and stereotypes to form. Since words are one of the basic ways we interact with others, this bias can emerge in the way we speak and write.
Being aware of this biological tendency helps us understand two things. First, we must be vigilant against unconscious bias. Second, instead of blaming people for using the “wrong” words, we can target alienating language and find ways to work together for inclusive language.
How Can Diversio Help?
How can you really know how diverse your workplace is, when not everyone may be disclosing health status or less-visible parts of their identity, such as chronic health conditions? And how can you know whether the words you are using are pushing your employees and potential team members away?
The answer to both questions is metrics. This is not something you can guess at. It is something you must measure, and Diversio is the world’s first AI-powered DEI solution that is designed to help organizations gather, analyze, and benchmark key DEI information. Diversio for Companies not only helps you determine the demographic breakdown of your company but helps you measure how inclusive your employees feel your workplace is. You can compare your results to others in your industry and get actionable suggestions for change from the Diversio Recommendation Engine™.
For Private Equity & Venture Capital companies, Diversio for Portfolios lets you gather, analyze, and benchmark DEI metrics from all your portfolio companies. No matter what your organization’s industry, Diversio Certification shows your commitment to DEI efforts and Diversio Academy helps you learn about best practices through self-paced, fun video training. To explore these and other solutions, book a demo today to see what measurable DEI changes Diversio can help you create.