Creating a workplace where everyone feels valued and included should be the ultimate goal for any business leader. To reach this goal, it is not enough to challenge only explicit and obvious forms of bias. We need to become aware of subtler forms of exclusion and discrimination, and tackle these too.
Language and communication are the lifeblood of any organisation, but sometimes the way we talk or express ourselves can cause others to feel uncomfortable, misunderstood, or excluded. Fortunately, education and awareness can alert employees to the power of their language, helping them to change their behaviour and become more actively inclusive.
The power of language
Language shapes our sense of self and has a direct impact on our emotional wellbeing. Neuroscientific research has found that ‘social’ pain, which happens as a result of exclusion or rejection, and physical pain activate the same neural networks in our brain.
When people experience social rejection at work, they will experience physical sensations of stress and discomfort. These feelings will impact their ability to be productive at work. If employees feel valued and included, they will experience more positive emotions, helping them to be more productive and collaborate successfully with others.
Words on a spectrum
Certain words or phrases have the potential to exclude a person or group, even if unintentionally. These words or phrases exist on a spectrum from simply exclusionary to harmful and derogatory. Identifying and challenging the use of language across the whole of this spectrum is an important part of creating a fully inclusive workplace.
Use of harmful phrases or language constitutes an action known as a ‘microaggression’. Dr Derald Wing Sue defines microaggression as “the everyday verbal, non-verbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalised group membership.” The impact of microaggression is often likened to ‘death by a thousand cuts’ because of the way these actions build up to have an immense impact on a person’s mental health.
Some technical language used heavily in the technology sector has offensive and racist connotations. This includes terms such as ‘black list’ and ‘white list’ or ‘master drive’ and ‘slave drive’. With such language embedded into industry parlance, diverse talent could be discouraged from participating in the tech sector. The long-term unchallenged use of such terms also reflects the broader problem of how our innate bias shapes the technology we create; for the consequences of this phenomenon, look no further than the bias and discrimination within real-world data being replicated and perpetuated by artificial intelligence (AI) built using that data.
Other frequently used phrases exclude on the basis of gender. Using male pronouns to describe a multi-gendered population is common practice. People often talk about ‘the man on the street’ when referring to what an ordinary person might think, or they say ‘mankind’ when referring to the human race. More direct exclusion happens when a person’s chosen pronouns are not respected. For someone who identifies with a different gender from that assigned to them at birth, using the correct pronouns is a means to be authentic to themselves. Being consistently misgendered can make people feel uncomfortable and misunderstood.
People with disabilities also experience exclusion through language. Likening being organised at work to having the mental illness OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), for example, dismisses the experience of people suffering with such disorders and might make them feel ostracised or misunderstood.
Education and awareness
To adopt inclusive language throughout organisations we need a combination of action from above and from below. Organisational and industry leadership needs to take action at the top to remove exclusionary technical terms. This has already begun to take place, with companies such as Android, Gitlab, and Splunk announcing last year that certain discriminatory technical words would be replaced.
From below, the action needs to be focused on education. Education on this topic should teach employees to recognise exclusionary language and understand how it affects their colleagues. Only through becoming more aware of ourselves and how our language impacts others can we become actively inclusive and root out unconscious discrimination. Empathy is crucial. When we take the time to understand the perspective of others, it is far easier to build an inclusive mindset. Building awareness on this topic also creates an environment in which people affected by discriminatory or non-inclusive language feel able to speak out and be taken seriously.
It’s important to recognise that our brains are malleable. With repetition, new connections are created and the habits of using antiquated or exclusionary language can be broken to be replaced by new language habits that are inclusive.
An inclusive and welcoming workplace
At NTT DATA UK and at everis, diversity and inclusion (D&I) are central to our mission and values. We know that ‘inclusion’ is a crucial part of D&I and that creating a fully inclusive workplace requires the active participation of leadership and employees in challenging ingrained stereotypes and biases.
When it comes to language, it’s important to remember that the language we use is constantly evolving. Organisations and their employees must remain open to such change and recognise that we will all need to continually evolve to outgrow outdated practices and attitudes. Maintaining this open and self-aware mindset is central to ensuring that every individual continues to feel supported, valued, and included at work. Creating this inclusive environment not only supports employees’ emotional wellbeing, it also improves their productivity, and therefore contributes to the overall success of an organisation.