In this Blast, we focus on the thorny issue of what you can and cannot say in today’s workplace – assuming, of course, that you wish to steer on the right side of the law and your employees’ expectations.
Is language important?
An integral part of many diversity initiatives is the recruitment of staff from a more diverse pool than you might normally tap into. And just as much time and effort then goes into ensuring the retention of those newly recruited staff. But when did you last check that your staff, managers and directors know what words and phrases are acceptable and appropriate in today’s workplace, as using inclusive language is an important part of creating the culture that will encourage staff to stay with you.
A sense of belonging
To retain staff the key is to not only recruit them and tell them they are included, but to go one step further and make them feel as though they belong. 51% of organisations said this was a key focus for them in LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends 2018. “If diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance and belonging is the feeling of psychological safety which allows employees to be their best selves at work”.
Do employees really care?
61% of women and 48% of men said that they would look at the diversity of a Company’s leadership before deciding whether to accept an offer (2017 study by PwC) and 59% of decision makers at UK organisations in a recent Glassdoor study said that their lack of investment in D&I was a barrier to attracting high quality candidates.
So let’s look at language
Firstly, we should note that language that’s generally regarded as acceptable evolves (often very significantly!) over time and varies to some degree with different communities/overseas. Therefore, our own understanding of what’s regarded as acceptable and appropriate needs to evolve and adapt to keep up with societal changes. If you were in the loop last year, then this year you probably aren’t! We all need to keep listening and learning. Things are changing fast.
Most informed managers know that banter or discriminatory language that relates to the nine protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief or sex) is unacceptable. But knowing what language is inclusive is less straight forward.
Here’s a few examples of what we at Jaluch sometimes hear and that most people now know is not acceptable.
- You’re nothing but a baby farmer (pregnancy and maternity discrim)
- You old codger (age discrim)
- You can’t do the job if you’re disabled (disability discrim)
- Vegans are troublemakers (religion and belief discrim)
- You’re too young to be a supervisor (age discrim)
Less focus on the Equality Act and more focus on Inclusive language
To create a sense of belonging people want to feel included. Language is clearly a key part of that. Inclusive language is language that:
- avoids stereotypes (all vegans are troublemakers)
- avoids making assumptions about people (you can’t do the job if you’re disabled)
- avoids reinforcing dominant ideas or labels (you’re too young to be a supervisor)
- avoids patronising or trivialising groups of people (you old codger)
- avoids causing discomfort or offence (you’re nothing but a baby farmer)
- focuses wherever possible on the positive rather than the negative
Inclusive language … a few examples
In the paperwork (contracts, policies, new starter forms, applications forms etc.)
- Partner/spouse – rather than husband/wife etc as this then includes more widely
- First name – rather than Christian name
- Title options considerate of those who don’t associate with Mr/Mrs etc
- Ethnic origin options on diversity questionnaires considerate of those who don’t fall into the traditional categories
- Flexible working for parents Policy – rather than a flexible working policy that includes all.
- Holiday policy that references taking time off for religious events that aren’t Christian and that doesn’t assume everyone wants Christmas or Easter Day off.
In the workplace
- Accessible toilets – rather than disabled toilets (to emphasise the positive)
- An employee with cancer – rather than a cancer ‘victim’
- Wheelchair user – rather than wheelchair bound
- Welcome everyone – rather than welcome ladies and gentlemen
- A website and marketing materials that use images and language that reflect the inclusive approach of the organisation for a joined up approach
- Chair/CEO, Operator – rather than titles such as Chairman or Warehouseman which indicates a particular gender
- Social events that are varied and include all – rather than ‘we all drink together after work’, ‘everyone here plays golf’ etc.
In your workplace create opportunities to talk about language. Identify what used to be acceptable but now is no longer acceptable. Be careful though to identify what is needed versus what is simply PC and not necessary. Explain how people feel when language is used that doesn’t make them feel as though they belong. Allow staff to talk about how they feel about language in a safe environment. If any feel they can’t express how they feel, and what makes them comfortable or uncomfortable then you are not going to be including everyone. And remember … there is no point in including some today who used to be excluded, if in the process you now exclude others who used to feel included!
Our final comment is that this can’t be something that HR polices, disciplining any who are considered to be using inappropriate language. Instead it’s got to be something that the whole business is involved and on board with. Its about creating an inclusive and respectful culture, rather than that rewriting the rule book, so take some time to think about what is needed in your organisation and the steps you can take to achieve that. There is no one perfect solution. Inclusion will always be a work in progress and anyone who says they have cracked it are quite simply deluded!
To finish – a cautionary tale about D&I initiatives
Last week you may have seen a headline about a police recruit who an Employment Tribunal confirmed was discriminated against on the basis of his race, sexual orientation and gender because he was rejected due to the fact that he is white, male, and heterosexual (and the police force wanted more diverse candidates).
The Employment Tribunal identified that the Cheshire Police Force had set the pass threshold artificially low. Candidates were awarded a simple pass or fail which meant that large numbers of recruits received equal scores (on paper). The Force then used positive action to select those who weren’t white, male, straight etc.
Positive action is normally used to boost the diversity of applicants applying for a role, or as a distinguishing factor when all the candidates are equally well qualified for the role, to choose candidates with more diverse characteristics. In this case creating an environment to ensure all candidates were equally well qualified for the role has resulted in discrimination. The case has now been adjourned to later this year.