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Welcome Inclusion

Words matter: How inclusive language creates a sense of belonging in the workplace

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 18 Feb 2022

Belonging middle main

Everyone should understand the importance of inclusive language, be comfortable making genuine mistakes and feel able to speak out when something unacceptable is said.

Fiona Daniel, CEO and Founder of D&I consultancy FD2i, explains that what we say and how we say it plays an important part in creating an inclusive workplace culture. “Inclusive language proactively recognises differences and the diversity that makes us who we are and demonstrates that we respect, value and support individuals through the language we use. This in turn enhances and accelerates a workplace culture to be more inclusive and create that sense of belonging as individuals hear themselves and see themselves in communications,” she says.

Inclusive language also encourages others to speak up in support. “The more people are aware of what is and what is not acceptable, the more they can adapt their own behaviours,” she says. “They are better placed to support others and say something when they hear non-inclusive language. And the more inclusive language is used, the more it becomes the norm.”

It also means that more people feel comfortable speaking up when they see exclusionary behaviour. Daniel says that inclusive language “empowers aspiring allies to learn, to use their privilege to lift the weight off the shoulders of those who are different [and] who tend to always do the speaking up, educating and being on the receiving end of exclusionary language”.

It’s important to remember language is fluid, therefore meanings and connotations of words can change rapidly. In effect, it is more important to apply inclusive language principles rather than always learning specific appropriate phrases.

Julie Dennis, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Acas

The impact cannot be underestimated. Being made to feel like you don’t belong, says Daniel, “can be soul destroying, have an impact on mental health and wellbeing and confidence, and heighten that sense of being on your own, not belonging and not fitting in”.

This then often affects “work performance and in turn can leak outside work into everyday life”, Daniel says. For Krita Shah, FSO Assurance Associate at EY, exclusionary language feels demoralising. “It feels like you are being segregated or put away from the community or workplace. Even if I don’t belong to the group that has been excluded, I still think about it,” she says.

Creating diverse workplaces through inclusive language is essential to good employee relations, according to Julie Dennis, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Acas, an independent public body focused on improving workplace relationships. “The first thing to recognise is that we all sometimes get language wrong and it’s okay to make mistakes. If you do make a mistake, apologise, correct or change what you have said, learn from the mistake and move on. 

“It’s important to remember language is fluid, therefore meanings and connotations of words can change rapidly. In effect, it is more important to apply inclusive language principles rather than always learning specific appropriate phrases, as these may change in meaning over time,” Dennis says, adding that inclusive language encompasses emails, marketing material, social media, websites and other forms of communication, such as imagery. “Yes, it’s really important that when you are recruiting people into your organisation, you use language that does not exclude applicants, but by using inclusive language across all forms of communications, including internal policies, will ensure all of your people feel included.”

One-to-ones, performance management meetings, giving feedback, events and customer, client and supplier interactions; the list of where inclusive language should be used is endless, FD2i’s Daniel says. “But hopefully it is understood that inclusive language is not confined to one place, but in all interactions where communication with people through written and oral word is needed.”

“We should work hard to facilitate a safe space”

In October 2021, ICAEW and Steps Drama held a one-day diversity and inclusion workshop that used dramatic scenarios and exercises to demonstrate to participants how workplaces can get it wrong and get it right.

“The role-plays were excellent and quite thought-provoking; they were pretty realistic, and it didn’t feel generic,” says Alan Chan, Founder at Cornerstone Accounts, who attended the workshop. 

“Sometimes people forget within a training environment that people are learning. This can result in people getting quite animated, offended and perhaps overly insulted if the wrong thing is said. We should work hard to facilitate a safe space.”

For Biyi Oloko, Director at international advisory firm Stephen Simeon, the workshop was an innovative approach to communicating an “essential yet marginalised message of the significance of diversity and inclusion in decision-making and implementation”. He says: “Diversity and inclusion is a very varied subject matter. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.” 

Krita Shah at EY says the workshop made her think about how “we let a lot of things slide under the carpet when really we should be questioning them”.