D&I nomenclature: It’s not just about what we shouldn’t say

In striving to elevate the workplace through diversity and inclusion, we might try only to quash language that has no business being in business. The effort requires more care and cognizance.

By Kim Clark

If we are not intentionally inclusive in our communications, then we are probably discriminating unintentionally.

I often say that in my workshops, and it speaks to understanding that everyone has unconscious bias: We’re still good people, and it’s not enough to just be aware of bias. We must be proactive in making more inclusive choices in our behavior and, most specifically as professional communicators, in the words we choose. We have a responsibility to role-model inclusive language.

It amazes me how violent the English language is in the vernacular: “Kill two birds with one stone,” “I could slit my wrist reading this email,” “Kill me now; I have to go to that meeting,” “can you take a stab at a draft?”

It’s also quite male-tilted: “Hey, guys, let’s begin the meeting,” as well as chairman, fireman, men at work (the construction sign, not the band).

If we don’t pause and think about what we say, we’re often reinforcing stereotypes that can work against ourselves, our leaders and our employees.

My mentor, Deborah L. Johnson, says: “Language creates images as it conveys information. Language is the medium through which attitudes and behavior are influenced. The emphasis on language in cultural diversity is not for the purpose of political correctness, but for stimulating new ideas and new approaches.”

Language can unite or divide. Words can hurt or heal; reinforce or dismantle the status quo. It’s time to disrupt the status quo of traditional communications.

We’re already learning to cut corporate jargon and be more human in our emails, newsletters, posts and company meetings. It’s time for creating belonging in our workplaces through intentional communications.

“Intention” has three components:

  • AlignmentWhat has our attention (our thoughts, words, deeds, feelings)
  • MotivationWhy we want what we want and who we think we will be if fulfilled
  • ProcessesHow we are going about manifesting what we want

The italicized words above are common for us communicators, as we use them in every communication plan we design. The only thing that’s missing is “when.” Well, the when is now for communicators to get deeply involved and even lead diversity, inclusion and belonging (DIBs) in our organizations. We cannot leave HR hanging, and this work is not an “HR thing.”

Everyone is responsible simply because it involves and affects everybody.

DIBs is not just a program or initiative; it is a serious and urgent transformation of how we run businesses and how we perceive and treat each other in the workplace. Categorizing efforts simply as programs doesn’t acknowledge that diversity is really about identity, who we believe we are, how we feel about ourselves and how we show up in the world.

To be intentional in inclusive communications, we must align our words, be motivated by understanding how crucial our role is in being inclusive of our employees’ experiences, and be proactive in our processes to demonstrate a culture of respect and belonging.

Here are three steps we can take to talk our walk:

Cut it out.

Lead by example verbally, in writing and in person. All kinds of words don’t belong in business; there are too many to list, but obvious categories include profanity, violence, any of the “isms” (sexism, racism, ageism, heterosexism, ableism, etc.), and words related to sexuality or sexual orientation and gender-loaded words.

Have zero tolerance for microaggressions. At a recent Black History Month event, the panelists shared common microaggressions they’ve experienced in the workplace. The panelists were black, didn’t know each other, came from different backgrounds and locations, were various ages and yet all had been called “articulate” after a presentation or after sharing an idea with colleagues. Additionally, a recent LinkedIn article reported 43% of black women have been interrupted in a meeting.

Talk with your ERGs (employee resource groups) or affinity groups and create an inclusion advisory council to involve employees (including allies) who are invested in making their workplace welcoming to everyone. They will tell you what’s important to them and what’s needed and will offer examples of communication missteps by the company. They will love that you cared enough to ask.

When we know better, we do better (usually).

If we want diversity, inclusion and belonging as a result, then diversity, inclusion and belonging must be part of the process. However, good intentions do not mitigate negative effects. The offense is in the eyes of the offended and we have to start by learning about our own unconscious biases.

When improving language and behavior, we’re all going to make mistakes. The point is not only to avoid mistakes; it’s to make the effort to recover with clear intention to make our workplaces inclusive and thriving.

Author of “Dare to Lead,” Brené Brown says:

People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusion, because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong. Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.

In other words, none of us can opt out. As singer Rihanna recently said in her speech at the NAACP Image Awards, allies especially “need to pull up. … If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that we can fix this world together. We can’t do it divided. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Just like learning anything new, we will mess up, but we don’t give up. Vernā Myers, author of “What if I Say the Wrong Thing? 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People,” says:

Sometimes our natural instinct is to defend ourselves by sharing our intent instead of accepting responsibility for our impact. We say things like, “that’s not what I meant,” or “I didn’t mean to insult you.” People know that no one is perfect; what they don’t like is when we pretend to be. When we downplay or ignore the mistake, we often exacerbate the situation or make it impossible to develop an authentic and trusting relationship with the person.

Instead, we must own it. Gently correct mistakes (we are all learning), and firmly call out misuses of words. Acknowledgment goes a long way to recover after misspeaking. Apologize, and learn from the moment.

This is not an apology: “You are being too sensitive, all I said was” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

This is an apology: “That was wrong, wasn’t it? I’m sorry. What should I have said?”

Kim Clark is an affiliate consultant with Ragan Consulting Group and specializes in diversity and inclusion communications, culture, and internal communications. 

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