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A Guide to Inclusive Language in the Workplace

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

A group of co-workers talking in around an office desk.

So much of our everyday language excludes different backgrounds, genders, and abilities. While this is oftentimes unconscious and unintentional, some commonly used words and phrases can read as male- or cisgendered-centric, while others can reinforce negative stereotypes about mental health, physical ability, or nontraditional family structures.

It’s time for our workplaces to embrace a new, more inclusive way to communicate to and about one another. Read on to learn how to promote inclusive communication at work.

What is inclusive language?

The language we use can (unintentionally) leave out entire groups of people. For example, career-related language is often male-gendered, with words like “congressman” or “policeman” commonly used to describe people employed in those professions. Even seemingly innocuous phrases like “mom and dad” can pose difficulties as they fail to acknowledge that many households do not have two opposite-sex parents. Inclusive language seeks to avoid words and phrases that exclude specific groups of people.

“Using gender-neutral and anti-ableist language isn’t about just being politically correct,” says Sayume Romero, a speech pathology student and LGBTQ activist. “It’s about allowing yourself to broaden your perspective. Language is powerful and … doesn’t only affect the listener, but also the user. By taking the extra energy to be more mindful of the language we use, we’re training new circuits in our brains and becoming more aware of how certain language can create a more supportive work environment.”

Pronouns and gender inclusion

When we speak, we tend to use pronouns like “she” and “he” as generic descriptors. However, there are people who may identify neither as male or female, so it’s important that our language takes them into account.

Instead of using traditional binary pronouns, you can use plural gender-neutral pronouns like “they,” “them,” “their,” “theirs,” and “themselves.” For instance, if you wanted to refer to someone’s work, regardless of the fact that they may look male or female, you could say, “They ran a thoughtful social media campaign for that nonprofit’s new program.” Since you’re already familiar with these pronouns, it’s not a stretch to start using them instead of gender binary ones.

There are alternative gender-neutral pronouns you can use that look and feel like a new language, but don’t be overwhelmed: you don’t have to use these identifiers unless you’re asked to.

One of the easiest things you can do to incorporate more inclusive language at work is to learn what pronouns your co-workers identify with. Depending on where you work and with a little bit of courage, you can make others—and yourself—feel more included and respected.

  • You can ask, “Which pronouns do you prefer?” or “How would you like to be addressed?”
  •  If asking feels too forward or potentially offensive, you can take the lead. For instance, “I’m Nisha and I go by she/her.” This invites others to do the same.

If you make a mistake and identify someone incorrectly, don’t be too hard on yourself; apologize to your co-worker and reaffirm which pronouns they’re comfortable with. If you find yourself using gendered, ableist, or heteronormative language, be aware of your mistake and how you could have expressed yourself differently so that you can next time.

Be aware of heteronormative phrasing

Binary gender identity is just one example of heteronormativity, which also includes:

  • The assumption of heterosexuality;
  •  The assumption of a “mom and dad” family structure; and
  • Assumptions and references to “traditional” gender roles at home (e.g. “Mom does the dishes while dad brings home the bacon.”)

Since the basis of heteronormativity is assumption, the best way to avoid it is to ask inclusive questions when you’re unsure of someone’s sexuality or preferred gender pronoun. For example, don’t ask, “How’s your wife?” Instead ask, “How’s your partner?”

Unintended ableism

Just as language is gendered, it can also be ableist. Ableism is simply the discrimination against anyone with a physical or mental disability. And our everyday, casual speak can unfortunately be ableist, reinforcing insensitivity and negative stereotypes.

Words like “blind”, “deaf,” “dumb,” “idiot,” “insane,” “lame,” “nuts,” and “psycho” are all ableist.

Instead of using words like these, take this opportunity to practice clearer communication. Instead of saying, “My manager is nuts if she thinks we’re going to meet that deadline,” you can say: “This deadline is unrealistic.”

Saying what you mean can prevent the use of offensive shortcuts. For some inspiration, check out the work of some great disability activists.

Promoting inclusion at work

“Ideally using unbiased language will become the norm and standardized, but until then it will take the efforts of organizations and individuals to shift the current language,” Romero tells us. But the real key to inclusivity, she says, is being mindful.

“It can seem overwhelming to be mindful of all the possible linguistic pitfalls you may encounter,” she notes. “So my first recommendation is to accept that you are human, just like the rest of us. Be open to listening to others and learning from their perspective. If you make a mistake then take the time to understand what it was and learn from it. With time, it will become easier and you too will be able to help others broaden their linguistic perspectives and sensitivities.”


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Nisha Kumar Kulkarni profile image

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni

Nisha Kumar Kulkarni is a writer and creative coach in New York City. She helps women living with chronic illness and mental health challenges to pursue their passion projects without compromising their health.

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