ATD Blog

Words We Use: The Biggest Stumbling Blocks for Diversity and Inclusion

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The seemingly innocuous words we use every day are so powerful that they can create or destroy empires, organizations, and human beings with equal facility. Manly Hall, author, philosopher, and mystic, rightly said, “Words are potent weapons for all causes, good or bad.” This is true now more than ever, particularly because our workplaces are more diverse than ever and our words make them better—or worse. 

How Are Words the Biggest Stumbling Blocks?  

Our workplaces consist of individuals from diverse backgrounds in terms of their gender, accessibility, race, religion, or culture. We have preconceived notions about these diverse groups, which are reflected in our words. Our words have the power to make someone feel included or excluded in an organization. 


Noninclusive words and phrases alienate people from their surroundings. There is no need to introduce an employee as “Sally, a single mother, will be taking over as the lead manager for this assignment,” when “Sally will take over as the lead manager for this assignment” sends the message across perfectly. In the same manner, circulating sexist or off-color jokes, although they are not directed at any individual, is offensive and isolating. 


Conversations at work could reflect racial stereotyping. For example, instead of saying, “It is great to have Kumar as our new IT manager. Indians are good with computers,” you could simply say, “It is great to have Kumar as our new IT manager. His computer skills will be an asset to the team.” The first statement is noninclusive and contributes to stereotyping. The second one is inclusive because it focuses on the individual, and not on the person’s ethnic background. There is no need to specify the race or ethnic group of an individual. 



Again, inclusive statements focus on the individual, and not the individual’s disabilities. It is always preferable to say, “Susan’s workstation has been moved to the ground floor because it is more accessible,” instead of saying, “Because she is disabled and uses a wheelchair, Susan’s workstation has been moved to the ground floor.” It is preferable to put individuals first, and not their disabilities. Also, expressions such as hearing impaired or visually impaired are more acceptable than the terms deaf or blind

Religion and Culture

A lack of understanding about religious and cultural differences also leads to misunderstandings within a diverse organization. People may be overly conscious in the presence of another group, or be completely insensitive and make unwarranted remarks about their beliefs or religious practices. Either is unacceptable in an organization. 


How to Overcome These Barriers

Investing in programs that promote diversity and inclusion is essential. The initiative should also focus on the language of inclusion. Inclusive words foster a convivial atmosphere and healthy workplace culture, and result in high-performing employees. Research suggests that organizations might have a competitive advantage if they invest in promoting an inclusive culture by managing diversity and equality.

While pamphlets, handbooks, and guides are helpful, they may not be adequate to ensure a fast transformation. We need to consider more engaging, interactive, and meaningful options. Celebrating festivals of different faiths, providing opportunities to understand one another through team-building activities, educational videos, scenario-based interactive modules, and role-paying activities are some of the methods that could be effective.

Understanding Prejudice is an excellent resource to gain insights about the prejudices, stereotyping, and discrimination prevalent around us and ideas to sensitize and educate employees with training.

Bias often creeps into our words. We need to remind ourselves and our colleagues to think before using words that could offend someone. Therefore, diversity and inclusion programs should include a segment on language and the usage of words that might be offensive or exclusive.

About the Author

RK Prasad is the founder and CEO of CommLab India, a global e-learning company. He is responsible for formulating business strategy and ensures that his workforce focuses on the true purpose and values of the organization.

RK has 29 years of experience in corporate sales, training, university teaching, and e-learning. He has an MBA and is pursuing his PhD in technology-enhanced learning from Lancaster University. He is also a University Grants Commission–certified lecturer in management, an engaging speaker, and an effective trainer.

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