Language can break barriers: but it can also – even inadvertently – create them. Ensure you’re engaging your whole audience and creating a culture of respect with inclusive internal communication.
Language and communication are some of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. However, even the most subtle changes in how we use them can have a huge impact.
We now understand that diversity and inclusion are critical to the success of an organization. Creating cultures of respect and community where every individual is valued is proven to deliver a multitude of benefits: and getting your internal communication right is crucial.
However, hitting the right tone and developing internal communications that will speak to our staff as individuals is no small task. It’s possible to exclude or imply inferiority without even realizing it: the accidental use of a pronoun, an unintentional stereotype. A single word can change the meaning or evoke a reaction we hadn’t anticipated.
It’s about creating that all-important environment of respect in which every individual is welcomed, valued, and empowered to be their authentic selves.
If you’re committed to delivering on your diversity and inclusion strategy, understanding the role of language in your internal communication is critical. We explore the best practices to bring a more mindful approach to how you speak with your employees.
Why do we need to craft inclusive internal communication?
Although the two terms are often grouped or used interchangeably, there’s a distinct difference between diversity and inclusion. Each is individually important: but it’s also possible to have a diverse workplace that isn’t inclusive, and vice-versa.
Diversity is the state of being diverse: those aspects that make us different or unique.
These characteristics and experiences will include (but are not limited to) race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religious and cultural background, familial status, age, socio-economic status, political beliefs, and more. These shape how we define our identities as individuals, and how we experience the world around us.
Inclusion, on the other hand, is the act of including someone or something.
In the context of the organization, it’s about creating that all-important environment of respect in which every individual is welcomed, valued, and empowered to be their authentic selves. It’s those practices and approaches made by the organization to ensure everyone is treated equally, regardless of their unique differences: which, in turn, will nurture a sense of belonging.
Arguably, inclusion is even more important than diversity because it creates a culture and environment in which every individual feels welcome and able to flourish. Without that inclusive culture, employees who join your organization but don’t feel comfortable or a part of it will quickly leave.
So, how do we know we’re using the right terminology or phrasing to help create and promote that positive environment? How do we create communications that recognize and treat people as individuals… who are equal?
Communication that isn’t inclusive can trigger a range of responses, making people feel:
- Abnormal or negatively different
- Offended, patronized, or trivialized
- Unvalued or less important than others
- Biased against or judged
- As though they have fewer rights or opportunities
While there are best practices to follow, inclusive internal communication is not about simply creating a checklist to follow. It’s a continual act of empathy and taking a mindful approach to the language, visuals, and approach you use. Connecting with your audience means listening and thinking about those different attributes that make them unique, and how that shapes their experiences.
It’s also something we have to continually revisit and often, challenge ourselves about. Many assumptions, prejudices and stereotypes are perpetuated over time and formed by our own experiences, social groups and interactions: they can be deeply ingrained and even subconscious.
General principles for inclusive internal communication
Although there are practical tips to promote more inclusive language in your internal communications, some governing principles and best practices can help forage positive connects and build trust with users.
#1. Don’t make assumptions: ask staff how they identify themselves
Your employees are individuals. There are many complexities and parts that make up our identity, and not everyone is comfortable being sorted into a defined category or group. Open, honest and non-judgmental conversations about diversity and inclusion will show you’re listening and help you tailor communication accordingly.
#2. Diversify your team and empower employee voices
If those responsible for developing your internal communications overwhelmingly fall into a particular group, no amount of best practice will make your comms inclusive. Empower your employees by giving them a voice and a place in your corporate comms.
Whether it’s ensuring you have representation on your team or developing an employee-generated content initiative, tapping into the experiences, ideas, and stories of those different communities will give them visibility, and your comms authenticity.
#3. Be mindful of using your own reference group
We tend to default to our own experiences and identity, especially when trying to understand or process experiences that are unfamiliar. This instinct to compare can then appear in our writing and speech.
Using your own group as a reference group or implying that those in a certain group are abnormal compared to a ‘general population’ will infer normality and superiority – for example, when comparing people with a disability with people who do not have a disability, use the term ‘non-disabled’ or ‘people without a disability’, rather than ‘normal’.
#4. Recognize the need for inclusivity beyond the written word
Representing diverse communities in our organizations is about more than using the right terminology: it comes down to the entire big picture our communication creates and how that reflects on our organizational culture.
This includes your use of imagery and video, any reference or influencer mentions (for example, do you only quote or promote the works of a particular group or demographic?) and those who represent your organization both internally and externally.
Are a diverse range of communities given the opportunity to share their experiences? To act as champions for the organization?
#5. Remember that inclusive communication is just one piece of the puzzle
Communication alone doesn’t foster inclusion. It’s an important part, but inclusive cultures are nurtured through many elements including leadership, recruitment and development practices, your organization’s approach to discrimination, harassment, and grievance reporting, and even your employees themselves.
Internal communication can, however, play a role in shaping these through the power of awareness and education. Inclusive language is one thing: using the platforms and channels at your disposal to share stories, insights, and learning opportunities across your organization is another.
Breaking down the specifics: practical guidance for inclusive internal communication
These practical tips aren’t exhaustive: there are many other diverse groups that need considering when crafting your internal comms.
However, considering the impact and options in these specific areas can bring self-awareness to the topic of inclusivity: and how we use language as a whole.
“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instruction of domination and liberation.”Angela Carter
Sex, gender and gender identity
Gendered language is a legacy approach that continues to perpetuate communication around the world.
In many cultures, this is in the form of defaulting to masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to groups whose gender is unclear or variable – think, ‘policemen’, ‘freshman’, ‘man-made’, or ‘mankind’.
Writers may also modify nouns relating to jobs or positions to indicate the sex of the person, particularly when the sex goes against stereotypical expectations. For example, “the female doctor gave a diagnosis” or “the male nurse checked the notes”, which shows a – perhaps unconscious – assumption that doctors are men and nurses are women.
This can also extend to assumptions about behaviors, interests, physical, mental, or emotional attributes, or day-to-day responsibilities: “At the event, we’d ask the men to help with carrying the boxes, and the women to help with the catering.”
There are also individuals who prefer not to be assigned a specific gender or referred to as a man or woman. With any piece of communication, the best test is to imagine a diverse group reading it and ask yourself: would each individual feel included and respected?
Adopting gender inclusive or neutral terms can break down these barriers.
|Gendered language||Inclusive alternative|
|“Each respondent should indicate his preference in the box.”||“Each respondent should indicate their preference in the box.” Use of plural pronouns: they, their, them|
|“The employee should escalate issues to her manager.”||“You should escalate issues to your manager.” Use of direct language to engage with the reader/audience and remove need for gendered language.|
|“A line manager should check in with his team daily / female managers should check in with teams daily”||“Managers should check in with their teams daily” Remove gender references or change the sentence to avoid the need to state a gender.|
|Policeman/cameraman/doorman||Police officer/camera operator/door security |
Use non-gender-specific terms
|Manpower||Employees, people, workforce|
|Man-made/mankind/founding fathers||Artificially-made/human race/founders|
|“Right guys/gents…” or, “OK, ladies/girls…”||“Right team/all…” or, “OK, everybody…”|
Use neutral and inclusive terms
Race, ethnicity, and religion
Today’s workplaces are rich in racial and cultural diversity, with individuals representing the broadest range of backgrounds and experiences in human history.
Just as it’s important not to assume that a person’s appearance or beliefs define their nationality or cultural background, the language we use must recognize difference without excluding.
The governing principle must be to only use a people’s ethnic heritage, nationality, or religion to identify or describe them if it’s required or directly relevant to the content: for example, if you need demographic data to assess diversity in your annual employee survey, or if you’re sharing content relating to a specific community, event, or holiday.
Unnecessarily identifying groups or individuals according to race, ethnicity, or religion can isolate, stigmatize, and create divisions.
Other best practices:
- When referring to a person’s race or ethnicity, use adjectives, not nouns: for example, an Asian person, not an Asian.
- Don’t make assumptions based on ethnic heritage or nationality: there are many complexities and differences within racial, ethnic, and religious identities. For example, not all people from Pakistan follow Islamic traditions; there are also a number of branches of Islam with varying traditions and practices.
- Where race or ethnicity needs indicating, be specific: use the recommended classification groups for your country (for the UK, see here; for the US, visit here) and always leave the option for your audience to indicate ‘other’ or specify how they identify, along with a ‘prefer not to say’ option.
- Do not use terms that treat whiteness as a default, such as ‘non-white.’
- Don’t use stereotypes – whether positive or negative – that make a generalization about members of a particular racial, ethnic, or national group.
- Remain up to date on terminology to use as best practice. Terms evolve over time, changing with demographic trends, political or social change, and popular use may vary according to geographical location. For example, use of ‘minority’ in the US no longer reflects the four primary racial/ethnic groups; the terms ‘emerging majority’ and ‘people of color’ have become popular and widely accepted substitutes (Racial Equity Tools). In the UK, use of the word ‘colour’ is considered outdated practice and may be found offensive. Use of ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’ or ‘BAME’ are preferred.
It’s important to recognize that almost all terms have their limitations (Advance HE Guidance) and when deciding on terminology to adopt internally, it’s best to involve staff in steering the conversation and guidance. Inclusive internal communication calls for asking those directly affected.
This not only gives voice to those individuals but will highlight the complexities and challenges – and help shape a rationale for choosing the terms you decide on.
Ability and disability
Historically, the portrayal of people with disabilities used language that emphasized the disability, rather than the person. The result can be depersonalization/enforcing the perception that a person is defined by their disability, or stereotyping people with a disability as being victims or suffering.
As with the other categories we’ve discussed, the overriding principle is to remember that in the majority of circumstances, there is no need to refer to a person’s ability or disability. Employees are people first, no matter how they interact with others or the world around them. Use people-centered language.
Only refer to a person’s medical condition, illness, injury, disability or situation where it is specifically relevant to the communication or content. Where it is necessary, consider these best practices:
- Avoid terms which reduce the person to their ability or disability – use “individual with epilepsy” rather than “epileptic” or “person with autism” rather than “autistic”.
- Don’t use blanket terms such as “the disabled, the handicapped” – try “person with a disability/people with disabilities” – or, where possible, be as specific as possible.
- Consider the language you use around disability and remove negativity that reinforces stigma/stereotypes; for example, “wheelchair-bound/confined to a wheelchair” is “person who uses a wheelchair” and those living with cancer or dementia are not “sufferers/victims.”
- Don’t use terms that imply normalcy or being healthy when referring to people without disabilities, such as ‘normal’, ‘healthy’, ‘able-bodied’. Instead, use ‘people without a disability’ – if it’s necessary to make the distinction at all.
- Don’t use euphemisms, such as ‘challenged/special’ or derogatory, outdated terms such as ‘deaf and dumb,’ ‘nuts/psycho/mad.’
- Be mindful of terms or phrases that contribute to stigmas, such as ‘tone deaf’ or ‘blindsighted’.
For further guidance to ensure fully inclusive internal communication, refer to the Disability Language Style Guide.
Sexuality – a person’s physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to other individuals – can be an important and integral part of identity.
But when organizations shy from speaking about sexuality, it can reinforce the idea that those individuals need to conceal this part of themselves. Careless use of language that regards a particular group as the default also excludes and makes for an environment where those individuals don’t feel safe being their authentic selves.
While the choice to disclose the more personal parts of our identity must always be that of the individual, ensuring your employees feel comfortable to do so if they wish – and that they don’t feel compelled to switch pronouns or leave a partner out of events or conversation – is something the organization can, and should, foster.
Remember: although the acronym LGBTQ+ is used for both, there is a difference between sexuality – who we’re attracted to – and gender/gender identity – who we are. Consider the following best practices:
- Don’t use terms that imply voluntary choice, such as ‘sexual preference’ or ‘lifestyle choice’. Instead, use ‘sexual orientation’.
- Don’t assume heterosexuality and ensure you recognize diverse family formations when writing: instead of ‘invite your boyfriend/husband’ or ‘your mother and father’, try ‘invite your spouse/partner’ and ‘parents/caregivers/family members’
- Recognize the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity: don’t use ‘LGBTQ+’ if only talking about sexual orientation.
- Include all legal relationship status groups if requesting on official documentation: for example recognizing civil partnerships/civil unions, common law marriage, cohabitants. Always check government/state guidance as this varies depending on the jurisdiction.
- Use person-centered language: lesbian, gay, bisexual people, rather than ‘lesbians, gays. bisexuals’.
- Always make disclosure a choice entirely in the hands of the individual. In writing, this includes the option of ‘prefer not to disclose’.
One of the most powerful tools for nurturing a safe space where all groups feel welcome is to recognize and celebrate them. Ensure inclusive internal communication by including a celebration of Pride, for example, or create employee networks and advocates to provide a voice and representation within your organization.
Driving inclusivity and diversity in internal communications
Language can be used to deliberately and mindfully engage diverse groups and communities in your organization. It can also potentially divide or isolate them.
Guidance can help steer best practice for inclusive internal communication, but it’s important to remember that the words people use to discuss any difference can hold different meanings for different people.
Being inclusive calls first for including those different communities in your internal communications strategy: so, engage with them. Understand their preferences, stories, and experiences to ensure you’re bringing them into the wider corporate conversation. Leverage the power of internal communication to educate, raise awareness, elevate their voices, and break down barriers.
It’s also important to remember that while we’ve covered some of the different elements that make up an individual’s identity, there are many, many more: spanning age and sexual orientation to educational background or political affiliation.
Breaking down the dos and don’ts for every possibility isn’t realistic: but once we start being more mindful of our language choices, we begin challenging our own unconscious bias and prejudices.
Ultimately, the language we use can make our audiences feel accepted and welcomed, build connections, and forge positive long-term relationships. Whatever communication you produce to speak to your employees, it should always reflect your commitment to an inclusive culture.