“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Whoever came up with that proverb clearly hadn’t been on the receiving end of countless microaggressions – that is, thinly veiled, everyday instances of racism, homophobia, sexism and more, from insults made ‘in jest’ to errant comments uttered without thought.
Because, the fact is, language informs our understanding. It’s the structure by which we express ourselves and perceive the world around us. The language we use doesn’t only demonstrate what we think and feel, it also influences how we think and feel.
In other words, language matters.
“Inclusive language proactively recognises differences and the diversity that makes us who we are and demonstrates that we respect, value and support individuals through the language we use,” explains Fiona Daniel, CEO and Founder of D&I consultancy FD2i. “This in turn enhances and accelerates a workplace culture to be more inclusive and creates that sense of belonging as individuals hear themselves and see themselves in communications.”
Cultivating a sense of belonging and recognition through your communications is crucial in recruiting. The signals you send – however subtle – through the language, you do and don’t use tell candidates everything they need to know about whether your business is an employer of choice. Will they feel welcome in your company? Will they be supported? Will they be safe?
Don’t believe us? The 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey found candidates often turn down opportunities as a result of the impression formed by language that is used in interviews, stating they can often tell whether an organisation has clear policies just through the tone and phrasing recruitment panels use. With millennials expected to make up 43% of the global workforce, we say ignore at your peril.
At its most basic, inclusive language means avoiding expressions or words that could exclude particular groups of people. But how does that look in practice? Here are the principles you should be implementing on your careers website, job descriptions and listings, social posts and ads, and recruiting conversations.
Remove coded language from job descriptions
Analysing over 75,000 job adverts, Total Jobs found only 20% of job adverts were gender-neutral, which could be discouraging certain candidates from applying. Here are a few easy switches to help cultivate a more diverse talent pool:
Ambitious or Competitive → Forward-thinking / Growth mindset / (Has a) Vision
Assertive → Ability to articulate vision and ideas clearly
Driven → Motivated / Enthusiastic / Positive / Passionate
Many ‘fun’ words employers use to spice up their recruitment copy also tend to skew male; plus, they can be hard for some people – such as non-native English speakers or neurodiverse people – to identify with. Quips like “rockstar,” “ninja,” “hacker,” and “unicorn” might alienate promising candidates, so it’s best to stick to neutral, widely understood language that describes the skills and qualities you’re looking for.
Get used to introducing and asking for pronouns
None of that “I don’t believe in pronouns” bulls**t, thank you very much. If you’re a cisgender person who’s never felt the need to clarify your gender identity, lucky you. But, with research showing nonbinary colleagues struggle to be accepted in workplaces that haven’t adopted pronouns and other identity-affirming vocabulary, consider that by creating an open environment where pronouns are the norm you’re making life a whole lot easier for other people.
If you want to attract top talent, getting comfortable with pronouns is a surefire way to make a whole bunch of people feel more seen and welcome. Check all your recruitment forms have the option to state pronouns, make sure your recruiting team includes theirs in their email signatures and on messaging platforms, and introduce yours at the interview to make candidates feel more at ease doing the same.
Side note: when talking about a theoretical person (such as a candidate you haven’t yet found) it’s totally grammatically correct to use “they” instead of the sexist “he,” patronising “she,” or dreaded, binary-screaming “s/he.”
Ditch male-centric titles and phrases
Phrases like ‘manpower,” “guys,” and “mankind” are so embedded in the way we talk it can be tricky to even recognise when you’re using them. The same goes for titles like “chairman,” “waitress,” and “salesman.” But such labels reinforce invalid dogmas on the role and importance people should occupy in society. In fact, one recent study revealed that using gendered language reinforces narratives around gender roles, even suggesting that choosing to use such words can be unconsciously driven by harmful stereotypes.
So, train your brain to adopt gender-neutral alternatives. Before too long, it’ll become second nature – plus, you’ll be spreading the love by influencing others to do the same.
Scrap language that feeds oppression and cultural insensitivity
Some phrases that have crept into our everyday vocabulary have dark historical context and implications. “Slaving away,” ”cracking the whip,” “blacklist” and “whitelist,” “guru,” “minorities” (as opposed to “marginalised people”), “peanut gallery,” “pow wow” and “tribal knowledge” are all related to ethnicity, race, nationality, and culture, acting as an unconscious signal that alienates some candidates. Comb your copy for sneaky slip-ups and be prepared to (gently) correct colleagues who use them, or your employer brand will suffer.
It’s important to mention that capitalising “Black” when referring to a person or group “gives Black people the power to define themselves, their identity, and their specific history that reflects centuries of injustice,” as President of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development Anne Price explains. Failure to recognise the importance of and implement this tweak could signify a lack of respect and repel candidates of all races and ethnicities.
Set aside assumptions about people’s background and preferences
We know you don’t think everyone in the world is a cisgender, heterosexual person from a 2.4-kids nuclear family, right? So, wear your woke on your sleeve by using neutral words related to gender, sexual orientation, and other distinguishing qualities – such as "spouse” or “partner," and “parental leave for birthing or non-birthing parents” (rather than maternity and paternity leave). It’s not tricky to change, but for some candidates, it’ll make all the difference.
Avoid slang and confusing turns of phrase
Using metaphors that are specific to just one culture or class – such as English idioms including “raining cats and dogs,” "ballpark figure" or "piece of cake" – can put non-native English speakers on the back foot. While phrases like “awfully good” can also be mind-boggling for anyone on the neurodivergent spectrum. You don’t have to lose all the personality from your copy; just consider if you’re giving all candidates a fair chance of understanding the messages you’re putting out into the world.
Stop reinforcing ageism
Language related to ageist stereotypes in job advertisements – such as “must be a digital native” – has been linked to discriminatory practices. And it’s not just about the descriptors you use for potential candidates. Think: what do you really mean when you call your business a “young, vibrant company” – what kind of message is that sending to qualified candidates who don’t identify as “young” (and might not be down for the sort of work culture this sentence implies)?
Meanwhile, casual use of phrases like “dino,” “senior moment,” and “silver surfer” (even when used in self-identification) can have disparaging connotations, so just don’t. Yeah?
Do away with language that promotes ableism
Misused descriptors to describe behaviour that doesn’t relate to mental health in casual conversation can signify all the wrong things about a company’s culture of inclusivity. To avoid this, make these easy swaps:
Blindspot → Missed opportunity
Crazy or Psycho → Ridiculous, unbelievable, unheard of, outrageous
OCD → Fastidious
Lame → Uncool or cheesy
Walkthrough → Review or guidethrough
As a rule, it’s usually better to use people-first language that centres on the individual rather than their descriptor. For example, using “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people” and “person who is hard of hearing” instead of “hearing-impaired.” Saying that some people prefer identity-first language (such as "autistic people") because they accept that trait as part of their identity, so often the best approach is to ask.
Think about what you say, as well as how you say it
The details you choose to feature in your job postings can have a major impact on the types of candidates who will apply (no matter if it’s standard across your business). For example, mentioning flexible schedules, parental leave, adaptive workspaces, benefits for domestic partners, and other perks could all make your company seem like a far more appealing place to work for certain marginalised groups.
FYI, it’s best to avoid including potentially confidence-crushing specifications like “strong English-language skills” unless they’re genuinely essential to the job function, as this could deter otherwise awesome, qualified candidates from applying.
Using inclusive language is a continuous journey of education that includes actively listening to learn and being open to feedback. Language is (and always has been) fluid, meaning what works today could become outdated in years to come. Luckily, for future-facing businesses staying agile and moving with the times should come naturally. Right…?
Need a hand refining your language for a more inclusive recruitment process? Get in touch.
As a bonus, here's some sage advice from our Talent Consultant, Jack Williams, to empower candidates when it comes to holding power in interview processes: