Our tips on using inclusive language in the workplace

Inclusion means many things. But in this blog, I want to talk about language.

Language tells us not just who we are, but where we have been and where we are now. It builds relationships and forges connections. It makes people feel included, like they fit in.

Language also creates barriers. It can make people feel excluded, like they don’t belong.

A diverse workplace means a broad range of skills, talent, perspectives and experiences in the one place. And when diversity meets inclusion, workplaces are more likely to retain staff, meet or exceed financial targets, achieve better business outcomes, and be high performing, innovative and agile.

While as a general rule, referring to disability, race, culture, gender, sexuality and age should only be done if contextually relevant, if you decide they are, here are a couple of our tips to ensure you are using inclusive language.

Talking about disability and illnesses

Identities are complex and multidimensional. So, when talking about disabilities, focus on the person rather than their mental or physical characteristics. Using person-first language means using terms like ‘person with disability’ as opposed to ‘disabled person’ which uses disability as an adjective that defines the person. You should also say ‘with disability’ rather than ‘with a disability’ because people can have multiple disabilities – and some may not attribute one thing to a particular disability.

The Australian Government Style Manual also suggests that you should not:

  • say someone is inspirational only because of their disability
  • write about people as if they are victims or heroes
  • use euphemisms and made-up terms such as ‘disAbility’.

To reference specific spaces designed for people with disabilities, use the term ‘accessible’ over ‘disabled’ – for example, an ‘accessible car space’ – a tip relevant for office invitations and signposting.

When talking about mental illness, you should also use person-first language. For instance, write ‘people with mental illness’ or ‘people with mental ill-health’ over ‘the mentally ill’. You should describe mental illnesses the same way you would any other illness or injury – so make sure you describe someone as ‘having’ a mental illness, rather than ‘being’ one. For example, say ‘they have bipolar’ not ‘they are bipolar’.

Talking about race, culture and language 

Australia is a country rich in cultural diversity and our language needs to reflect that. So, it’s best to use ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’ which respects the diversity and difference between the two cultures. The term ‘Indigenous’ – while often used generically – can diminish the diversity of these communities, so avoid using it unless given permission otherwise.

It is also important to note that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples may prefer to be identified by clan, nation or language group – so again, check in with the person you’re referring to.

Australia is also incredibly linguistically diverse. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in the 2016 Census that over 300 separate languages are spoken in Australian homes. So when it comes to speaking about people who do not speak English as their first language, use ‘language other than English’ over ‘non-English speaking background’ to avoid unnecessarily dividing people into English speaking and non-English speaking. 

Employees who speak different languages lined up against a wall

Talking about gender

Inclusive language on gender should convey gender equality and be neutral. This means, when referring to individuals, you should ask what their pronoun is. If you cannot ask them and they have not said otherwise, use a gender-neutral pronoun like ‘you’ or ‘they’ – or even construct the sentence in a way that avoids the use of pronouns entirely.

For example, to avoid gender specific pronouns, you could say:

  • you must provide evidence of having obtained a security clearance in your application. [Second-person pronoun.]
  • candidates must provide evidence of having obtained a security clearance in their application. [Plural pronoun.]
  • applicants must provide evidence of having obtained a security clearance in the application. [Leaving pronoun out altogether.]

Gender-neutral pronouns can also be used when referring to people who do not identify as a particular gender or who identify as non-binary or gender fluid. 

In job ads, gender-specific job titles should be avoided. For example, replace a gendered title like ‘fireman’ with a neutral one like ‘firefighter’. You should also not specify women in job titles – for example, replace ‘waitress’ with ‘waiter’.

Talking about sexuality

Sexual orientation is not a choice. You should avoid using the term ‘sexual preference’ as it suggests that individuals choose their sexual orientation.

You should also steer clear of heteronormative assumptions – use ‘partner’ or ‘spouse’ over ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’. This helps you to avoid both wrongly assuming someone’s sexual orientation as well as misgendering their partner.

‘LGBT’ is a term that arose in the 1990s to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The term has evolved over the past three decades and has now been expanded to ‘LGBTIQ+’ or ‘LGBTIQA+’ – which includes intersex people, the queer community, asexual people and other sexual identities.

The Australian Government Style Manual uses ‘LGBTI’ and ‘LGBTQ+’ but also notes that when creating law and policy, writers often use the term ‘SOGIESC’, which refers to ‘sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and sex characteristics’.

Talking about age

Standalone words like ‘old’ or ‘young’ are relative terms and can carry unintentional subtext. A more neutral way to refer to age is to say ‘older people’ or ‘younger people’.

Students should be referred to by level of study rather than age as tertiary students can be many ages. Unless relevant to the context, avoid using the term ‘mature-age student’.

Key points

Using inclusive language in the workplace can mean breaking old habits. Habits that can be, for some, decades long. It is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes. So, if you catch yourself out, just apologise, learn from it, and try to avoid doing it again.

Discussions on using the most inclusive words at work are constantly evolving and it’s important to pay attention to them. But when in doubt, follow the general rule that people have the right to identify as they choose. Simply ask people how they’d like to be referred to.

Remember, the way we use our words – how we speak to one another – shapes our workplace culture. And a genuinely inclusive workplace is a successful one.

Adrienne from RD Consulting working on a laptop


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