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The power of language and its role in inclusion

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a word nerd like us at Textio. You’ve likely become increasingly aware that words carry so much meaning—and you’ve probably been surprised, if you use Textio, to see that the meaning in your head wouldn’t translate the same to everyone who might read your message.

Regardless of intent, the wrong words can have all the wrong effects. Your words can perpetuate bias, uphold systems of inequity, and make individuals feel that they cannot see themselves thriving at your company. Thoughtless or insensitive phrasing can be discouraging to potential applicants, demoralizing for current employees, and damaging to your culture.

Of course, the right words can have the right effect. That’s why it’s so critical to be mindful, and why language is so central to inclusion. It’s not just what we communicate, but the words we choose to get our message across.

It’s not just what we communicate, but the words we choose to get our message across.

In our first blog of this series, we arrived at a new, two-fold approach to inclusion: be inclusive and create inclusion. In the second, we reviewed the “flywheel of belonging” framework—the cycle of practices, communications, policies, and accountability structures that build and reinforce inclusive environments. In this article, see how language can be one of the most important levers you have to make an impact on inclusion in your culture.

Be inclusive: The opposite of exclusion

In our ongoing work on inclusive language, Textio has identified word and phrase patterns that are likely to impact your inclusion efforts, based on the most advanced language data and research. Some you might know well, and some are newer. Let’s briefly review:

Biased language

Unconscious bias in language isn’t always obvious or intuitive, but the impact it has on your inclusion efforts cannot be denied. In job posts, for example, the words exhaustive and fearless are statistically more likely to result in more men applying than women—there’s no gender-bias phrase list that would include these. They’re not intuitive as masculine-bias words, but it’s what the current data show.

Ageism and ableism show up in writing too—people absentmindedly use phrases like blind eye, for example. And there are many more ways your language may be alienating people that you might not initially think of as “bias,” like cultural and regional phrases (e.g., bi-weekly doesn’t mean the same thing in the U.S. as it does in the U.K.) or corporate jargon like stakeholders and KPIs that originated in a predominately white and male corporate environment.

Harmful language

Phrases like grandfathered in and blacklist, which have racist origins, are still frequently used in business, even though alternatives with less sordid pasts are available instead. It’s also not uncommon to hear someone mention a diverse person when referring to a member of an underrepresented group. Without even realizing it, people use offensive or problematic language in the workplace. The impact of these phrases (and the phrases themselves) change over time. In some cases, the offenses are blatant and obvious, but frequently they are subtle. Eliminating these harmful words and avoiding regrettable mistakes can make a huge difference in how someone might see you or your organization.

Create inclusion: from inclusive language to inclusive people

While most of the language patterns above involve words and phrases that might be unintentionally excluding people, there is also language that can express your commitment to inclusion. In some cases, this can be explicit, like sharing in plain language your stance on equal opportunity or speaking to reasonable accommodations for people of different abilities.

But there are also phrase patterns that highlight values that are inclusive—things like multicultural language (that reflects a celebration of diversity), team-centric language (that emphasizes community goals and achievement), and growth-oriented language (that focuses on one’s potential to learn and develop).

Are you using language that emphasizes the value of inclusion in your talent content?

Are you using language that emphasizes the value of inclusion in your talent content, to attract people who value inclusion? Research shows it’s a key part of creating a culture of belonging—and many of us have been missing it.

It’s a deceptively simple idea. But most virtuous cycles are, and that’s exactly what you have to build: a self-reinforcing loop that optimizes for belonging, not just affinity. The more people on your team who truly feel like they belong—and who also care about whether others feel like they belong—the stronger and more sustainable your whole system becomes.

This means your focus for truly inclusive talent attraction is to appeal to people who:

  • understand the importance of diverse perspectives and equal representation;
  • are committed to building and helping communities; and
  • see talent not as something you do or don’t have, but as something you grow and develop with experience, hard work, and support.

Why these three attributes—valuing diversity, being community-oriented, and seeing abilities as malleable—in particular? They each help people, especially those from underrepresented groups, feel more accepted and connected to their teams.

This all ladders up to communicating inclusion as a holistic system, rather than a surface structure. After all, even if we believe words to be small things, they make up language and communication, which is deep and human and innate.

This is a modified excerpt from the guidebook "Rethinking your approach to inclusion." Download the full guidebook here.

Thanks to Eleanor Chestnut, Tim Halloran, Becky Auerbach, Andrew Violante, and Cassie Sanchez for their contributions.

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