Inclusive Language in Written Communications? Why Organizations Should Care

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LGBTQ+ Pride Month, Juneteenth and other celebratory occasions recognizing often-excluded populations are also a time to discuss the impact of inclusive writing.

Inclusive language is often associated with verbal interactions, such as meetings, interviews and workplace chatter. But what about the written communications organizations develop? Depending on access and permissions, these communications could be available to various internal and external audiences. While they may inform, announce and promote, do they support diverse groups, and why should you care?

What is inclusive language?

According to 18F, a digital consultancy within the General Services Administration (GSA), language that's inclusive "helps us to be more accurate and build trust with our users."

Some organizations focus their definitions on word choice and intentionality. According to Deloitte, inclusive language recognizes "that words matter and that word choice can be used, intentionally or unintentionally, to include or exclude others."

Sara Holquist, director, diversity and corporate social responsibility, ADP, says inclusive language is about being respectful and letting others know they belong.

What are some examples of inclusive language?

Examples of inclusive language include avoiding idioms and colloquialisms that could obscure meaning for international audiences, using "they" when "he," "him" and "his" and "she," "her" and "hers" aren't necessary and more. Generally, language that's inclusive is non-discriminatory, gender-inclusive, affirming of the LGBTQ+ community, devoid of unnecessary color-based terminology and mindful of cultural meaning.

What are written communications?

Written communications encompass various organizational content pieces, such as emails, blog posts, collateral and more. This is not an exhaustive list, however. There are many different types of written communications in the workplace that could benefit from inclusive language.

What are inclusive written communications?

Inclusive written communications don't contain instances of non-inclusive language. They may have been developed with inclusion in mind from the outset or excised of any non-inclusive language following their initial publication, revisions or distribution. It's easy to overlook non-inclusive language in written communications if you're not accustomed to spotting non-inclusive instances, and the impact can be significant.

What are the benefits of inclusive written communications?

Inclusive written communications avoid making internal and external audiences feel confused, excluded, disrespected or discriminated against. They ensure that these audiences enjoy the most inclusive and comfortable experience possible while reading or listening.

"If you're thinking about the people reading or listening to your organization's written communications, ensuring that they feel respected by your organization should be a priority," Holquist says. "These communications could reach anyone interacting with the organization or its products and services, so being mindful of what they say is important."

What are the costs of non-inclusive written communications?

When people read or listen to written communications that use non-inclusive language, that experience could make them feel discriminated against, confused, excluded or disrespected. These experiences are counter to building and maintaining a culture of inclusion and belonging.

"We want people to be connected to our organizations, to feel welcome and that they belong," Holquist says. "But suppose people are just going about their workday and encounter non-inclusive language in communications that are supposed to serve them, help them or inform them. That could detract from ensuring that people feel welcome and connected to the organization. The communication will have been useless. It could feel like a distraction, at least, and, at worst, people could feel hurt and disrespected, and we should expect feedback."

How can organizations do their part?

Organizations seeking to build and maintain a culture of inclusion and belonging should develop a plan to excise their written communications of non-inclusive language. When creating written communications, organizations can ask themselves: Is the content's language supportive of a culture of inclusion and belonging for everyone? Is the language gender-inclusive? Does it avoid using unnecessary color-based terminology? Is it mindful of cultural meaning? Is it plain and easy to follow? Does it avoid idiomatic or colloquial confusion? Have non-inclusive instances been bypassed or removed? Is there a plan to address non-inclusive instances that mistakenly work their way in? Working with experts in written communications and diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) can make this process easier.

Working together toward more inclusive language

Holquist says inclusive-language initiatives shouldn't happen in a bubble, or without collective input. Since these initiatives involve one of our most influential tools — language — and affect people's interactions with it broadly, working together, she says, is the most important thing.

"Organizations should keep in mind that having inclusive language or introducing an inclusive-language initiative must include everyone," Holquist says. "The expectation should be clear that the organization will move and evolve as a community. We need to support one another as we all try to learn how to use more inclusive language."

For more on inclusion and belonging, visit ADP's DE&I Resource Hub.