Demographics in the United States are diversifying with each passing year. More importantly, our understanding of and focus on inclusivity is growing. That means many of the phrases and jokes of the past are no longer acceptable. The adverse reactions these sayings can cause are nothing new, but it’s no longer socially acceptable to cause harm in the name of thoughtless attempts at humor.
The way we talk to others is a representation of our character, so any business that wants to be known for values needs to ensure their communications reinforce them. You can paste all manner of inspirational mantras on your walls, but if your leaders use crass “bro” talk around employees, you’ll lose all credibility.
“An inclusive work environment doesn’t just happen; it requires sustained effort,” says an inclusivity report from McKinsey. “Stresses from COVID-19 and extended isolation are driving a range of negative emotions in employees. On top of that, recent prominent examples of racial injustice have affected many employees in ways that cannot be left behind when work begins. This is especially true for Black employees. While the systemic nature of racism demands systemic action, individual actions are an important part of supporting employees and ensuring they can continue to make meaningful contributions.”
It’s clear that any improvements need to start at the top. You and your leaders should speak openly and often about how you can set an example for inclusive communications. You’ll also need to decide how you’ll deal with those who fail to live up to your company’s standards.
Inclusivity Is Good for Business (and the Soul)
There are obviously ethical reasons for using inclusive speech. When we target or isolate others with our language, we often cause substantial damage. Over time, these offenses pile up to the point that self-esteem is destroyed and trust becomes impossible.
Treating others fairly and respectfully requires empathy. Using this powerful relationship tool, we can improve our actions not because we have to, but because we want to. Understanding the way other people are impacted is an essential part of becoming better versions of ourselves. It allows us to step out of our self-serving world, which inevitably brings personal growth and happiness.
But inclusivity isn’t merely a heartwarming topic—it can also have a direct impact on your bottom line. Research shows that businesses that effectively incorporate diversity “are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”
When your business embraces diversity and inclusivity, those positive values emanate into the world. People value authenticity so much more than the aforementioned “words on the wall,” so your actions will attract employees, partners, and customers.
Benefits that come from a diversified business team include better retention, broader range of perspectives, stronger internal culture, better engagement with the community, and the kind of brand loyalty that you read about in business books.
Some Phrases That Need to Go
You might be wondering if parts of your speech are potentially offensive. Well, you guys, I have some great advice that’ll help you speak in a way that’s respectful to all mankind. In case you didn’t notice, that previous sentence has a couple of issues. First off, “you guys” is a gender-specific phrase that can be offensive to some groups. Likewise, the word “mankind” is another unnecessarily gender-specific term.
Let’s try that again: Don’t worry, everyone, I have some great advice that’ll help you speak in a way that’s respectful to all humankind. To improve the inclusivity in your communications, consider ditching:
- Sports analogies: While they’re effective expressions for those who enjoy and understand sports, these types of analogies are relics of the male-dominated business world that has alienated other groups for centuries. You might not think there’s anything wrong with telling your team that a certain situation calls for a “full-court press,” but if even one person is left unsure of what you meant, why wouldn’t you want to use a more accessible phrase?
- Gender-specific terms: As noted above, our language is replete with phrases that single out a specific gender. For every self-promoting term such as “chairman,” “foreman,” or “spokesman,” there’s a female-disparaging idiom such as “old wives’ tale.” By adjusting our speech to apply to everyone in the room, we’ll show the scope of our sincerity.
- Exclusionary idioms: Some idioms, such as the aforementioned “old wives’ tale,” are tied to historic prejudices and should be rejected on moral grounds. But another issue arises with local idioms that will only be understood by those who have ties to the region. Make an effort to communicate in a way that will resonate with your entire team, regardless of where they grew up.
- Disability-related terms: Whether it’s referring to someone as “deaf” because they didn’t hear what you said or saying that something is “retarded,” there’s a multitude of non-inclusive (and despicable) terms that must be purged from a successful business environment. A good rule of thumb is to imagine how you’d feel if a family member had a certain disability, then only speak in a way that you’d be comfortable with.
- Insensitive words about the LGBTQ+ community: This is one of the most historically underrepresented communities in our country. Terms such as “tomboy,” “gay agenda,” or “she-male” are offensive, outdated, and just plain inaccurate. Educate yourself so that you can communicate in a way that incorporates the LGBTQ+ community, rather than push them further away.
While it’s easy to relate to the friends and family we grew up with, it can sometimes be challenging to know the best terminology for more diverse settings. There are a couple of ground rules that can help alleviate any unintended offenses. First, only highlight differences when relevant and necessary. Second, if you’re unsure of what terms to use, ask someone who would know.
As you strive to eliminate labels and broaden your reach, your business will become the type of place that people respect. You may not get every conversation right, but it will be obvious that your heart is in the right place.