Making the Case for Using Inclusive Language at Work

Share it now

In today’s competitive business environment, anything that doesn’t help you hurts you. And, not surprisingly, that includes the way we communicate with each other.

At work, language that’s inclusive can make employees feel respected and committed, and help deliver better business results. Non-inclusive or exclusive language can alienate employees, and make it that much harder for teams to meet their goals.

All that has employers taking a hard look at the way their people talk to each other – and asking if their organizations can afford to ignore the benefits of being more conscious about our words.

What Is Inclusive Language?

Inclusive Language Definitions

The Linguistic Society of America defines inclusive language as language that “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.” 

It’s a good definition, but it might sound a little wonky to some of the leaders and employees you need to reach. 

Fortunately, there’s a simpler way to look it. Here’s another definition from the University of Queensland Guide to Using Inclusive Language that is simple, elegant and accessible. 

Inclusive language is language that’s respectful and accepts and values all people.”

Inclusive Language Focuses on the Person

At its core, inclusive language is really about putting people first. It’s language that emphasizes the person, rather than characteristics like age, gender, race, disability, religion or even political affiliation. 

In fact, many inclusive phrases literally start with the word “person.” For example, “person with disability” is preferred over “disabled person” or “handicapped person.” “Person with HIV” is preferred over “AIDS victim.”

It’s Here to Stay

If you look at fundamental shifts in societal norms and workforce demographics, it’s pretty clear that inclusive writing and speaking are here to stay.

  • Today’s workforce is increasingly diverse – and in one recent survey, 80% of employees said they wanted a workplace that values diversity, equity and inclusion. 
  • Using more inclusive words and phrases supports a sense of belonging that leads to greater employee satisfaction and performance.
  • It builds trust – making communication and collaboration more effective.

Examples of Inclusive Language in the Workplace

Choosing More Inclusive Alternatives

What should you do to use inclusive language?

One simple way to make your language more inclusive is to replace problematic language with more inclusive words and phrases. 

Organizations like the American Psychological Association (APA) publish inclusive language guidelines that make it easy to find inclusion-friendly alternatives. 

These guides are also a great source of inclusive language examples that illustrate the differences between inclusive and non-inclusive language.


Gendered Language Gender Neutral Language 
Chairman/chairwoman Chairperson, chair
Manpower Workforce, workers 
Manned Crewed

Disability or Neurodiversity

Abelist Language  Inclusive Alternatives
Wheelchair-bound Person who uses a wheelchair
Disabled or handicapped Person with disability, person with a physical disability
Special needs Person with disability, differently abled

Socio-economic Status

Classist Language Socio-economically Sensitive Terms
The poor / Poor people People with incomes below the federal poverty threshold / low-income people
Blue-collar worker Skilled trades worker / manual laborer
Ghetto / the ghetto Under-resourced area / low socio-economic area

Avoiding Offensive or Stereotyped Terms

Inclusive language can also involve simply retiring words and phrases that have problematic – and often surprising – origins. 

This includes terms like:

Term Common Meaning History
Gyp/gypped Duped or tricked Gyp/gypped is a negative term that derived from the word ‘gypsy’ and originally applied to the Romani people.
Brown Bag Lunch  Food taken to work to eat at lunch. Brown bag lunch derives from a form of racial discrimination that involved comparing a Black person’s skin color to a brown paper bag. 
Grandfathered  Excepted “Grandfathered” derives from a statute enacted by seven Southern states to deny suffrage to Black Americans.
Master/Slave Program Software engineering terms for primary and secondary computing programs Any terms rooted in slavery should be avoided and replaced at all costs.

Understanding and Using Inclusive Terms

Speaking more naturally also almost always involves learning to correctly use otherwise appropriate inclusive terminology. This can include terms like:

Term Misuse Explanation
Hispanic Used to refer to all people from Central or South America. “Hispanic” refers to people descended from countries where the primary language is Spanish.
A person from Brazil might not identify as Hispanic because they speak Portuguese.
African—American Used to refer to anyone whose ancestors originated in Africa. Not all black people in the US identify as African-American. For example, a black person from Jamaica may identify as a Jamaican-American. A black person from Brazil may identify as Latine.
Asian Used to refer to American citizens whose ancestors originated in Asia. “Asian” refers to Asians in Asia. Asian Americans are citizens of the United States – so It would not be correct to refer to an Asian-American woman by saying “She’s Asian.”

Please note that these examples are by no means exhaustive. Rather, we encourage you to look to the principles mentioned here to determine which terms you might want to exclude from your own vocabulary.

Making the Case for Inclusive Language

Many organizations recognize the need for a more inclusive workplace – but, oddly, have done little to adopt it.

For example, Deloitte reports that 79% of organizations think that fostering a sense of belonging at work is important to their success, but only 17% have processes in place to do something about it.

And that creates an opening for you to make the case that inclusion training matters.

The Values of Inclusive Speaking

Most organizations adopt Codes of Conduct or Values Statements that include respect, inclusion and non-discrimination. But too many employees think these statements are just words on a page. 

  • Only 20% of employees strongly agree their coworkers are committed to their organization’s cultural values. 
  • Only 21% of employees strongly agree that their manager explains how the organization’s cultural values influence their work.

Training employees on how to use more identity sensitive language is one practical, effective and visible way for your organization to put its commitment to respect and inclusion into action.

The Economic Choice

While it may be the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing for your business.

Recruiting. Using gender neutral and racially conscious language can help you tap the widest candidate pool and attract the best candidates.

  • Gender-neutral job listings received 42% more responses than listings with more gendered terms.
  • 37% of all workers, 45% of Black workers, and 54% of managers would switch jobs to be part of a more inclusive workplace. 

Increasing Retention / Reducing Turnover. Inclusive language can also help organizations retain their best employees. 

  • Proper communication and a strong sense of community have kept 54% of employees in an organization longer than they had intended or planned to be in the company. 
  • When employees feel like they belong their employers can expect as much as a 50% reduction in turnover risk

Increasing Productivity. Speaking inclusively also builds trust and mutual respect – making communication easier, collaboration more effective and teams more successful. For example:

  • Employees with a strong sense of belonging are more than twice as likely to be productive, resilient, committed to their company, satisfied with their job, and feel enthusiastic about their role. 
  • Employees who reported a sense of belonging at work logged 75% fewer employee sick days

Making the Case for Inclusive Language Training

People are far more likely to make intentional and inclusive choices if they understand what inclusive language is and why it matters. That’s where training comes in.

And training is really important. Learning to be more conscious about the way we communicate is about more than just word choices. To overcome entrenched language habits, you need to help employees build:

  • Awareness: Of the way they communicate and the meanings and messages their words send. 
  • Sensitivity: To the diverse experiences and perspectives of others and to the impact of their language choices have.
  • Learning: About communities they may not be part of, and how and why language can be excluding or alienating to them. 

Effective training, like Emtrain’s Inclusive Language Training Course, should

  • Use simple, non-judgmental language: to clearly explain the core concepts and how inclusive language can give people a sense of belonging.
    • Offer concrete guidance: to show employees how to communicate better, how to self-correct when mistakes are made and how to confront non inclusive language in a productive way.
    • Use realistic video scenarios: to put the concept in context and demonstrate its benefits.

Parting Thoughts

In some ways, making the case for inclusive language isn’t the hard part. Who argues the way we communicate doesn’t matter to our values or our business results?

The hard part is change. It always is. 

It helps you overcome the inertia plaguing many organizations – so your organization can reap the benefits of inclusive language. 

Stay up to date with our blog posts!

Related Posts

Related Topics


Janine Yancey

Janine Yancey

Emtrain Founder & CEO Employment Law ExpertLong before #MeToo, Emtrain’s Founder and CEO Janine Yancey conducted live training to educate employees and build their skills on respect, empathy and making good decisions to proactively prevent workplace...Read full bio

Okay, you got this far.
Let’s get compliant.