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Start using inclusive language with your team and customers

Inclusive language helps you bring in and keep new customers and talent. It also improves productivity and innovation.

Published March 1, 2021
Last updated March 3, 2021

A contentious election, protests, and the storming of the U.S. Capitol captured the world’s attention in 2020 and 2021. These events have led organizations to gauge their effectiveness in creating safe, welcoming spaces for their employees and customers. As a result, more companies are looking for ways to strengthen their DE&I with inclusive language. That’s not just because adopting inclusive language is the right thing to do—it’s also because it makes sense for your business.

Inclusive language impacts almost every aspect of a business: attracting and retaining customers, hiring and keeping talented people, increasing productivity, and driving innovation. To get started, you need to understand why inclusive language matters, and how companies use it. You must also develop tactics to get your team to embrace it.

What is inclusive language?

Inclusive language definition: Inclusive language is language that intentionally and proactively reflects an openness towards differences, creating a safe, neutral space for everyone to feel welcome.

Inclusive language doesn’t exclude individuals or particular groups of people for their race, sexual orientation, age, gender identity, ability, socioeconomic status, or any characteristic that challenges the status quo. For example, inclusive language doesn’t:

  • Use disabilities as expressions when they don’t apply (like saying “turn a blind eye” when you mean “ignore”).
  • Establish one group of people as the norm (like calling everyone who isn’t white “non-white”).
  • Insinuate that a pronoun is a choice (like asking someone for their “preferred” pronoun).

But we see inclusive language as being more than avoiding exclusion. It’s about proactively building a neutral, safe space and welcoming diverse perspectives.

Why does inclusive language matter for businesses?

Words matter. Your company can’t become more inclusive if employees continue to use language that offends or excludes part of your team. Inclusive language builds the foundation for a strong, welcoming culture. It’ll help you get (and keep) more customers and better talent. It'll also make your team more productive and innovative.

“All it takes [to lose them] is one bad interaction where somebody gets a sense that they don’t belong or that they’re not being treated as an individual. We have no choice as a global organization but to be ever cognizant of the impact our words have on each other and our customers.” — Holly VandeWalle-Gore, director of Training and Quality Assurance at Zendesk

Attracting and retaining customers

Inclusive language opens the doors to engaging new customers and increasing sales. That’s because customers are more likely to engage with a brand when they feel represented.

Historically underrepresented groups are more likely to consider or buy a product after “seeing an ad they think is diverse or inclusive” according to a 2019 study by The Female Quotient, Google, and Ipsos. Latinx+ and LGBT consumers were both 85 percent more likely to take action after seeing ads that used inclusive language and imagery. The same was true for Asian/Pacific Islanders (79 percent), millennials (77 percent), and teens (76 percent).

Some even go so far as to seek out brands with diverse representation. Black consumers in particular (69 percent) are more likely to proactively seek out a brand with advertising that positively reflects their race/ethnicity.

That’s what happened with the 2019 Head & Shoulders Royal Oils Collection release by Procter & Gamble (P&G). Black scientists on the P&G team developed the new hair-care product to address common hair concerns for Black consumers. They used inclusive language, models, and images to resonate with that audience. The company saw a 5 percent growth in organic sales that fiscal year, thanks in part to this new product release.

“A diverse team supported by an inclusive environment that values each individual will outperform a homogenous team every time.” — David Taylor, CEO, president and chairman of P&G

Inclusive language also builds stronger (and longer-lasting) customer relationships by making consumers feel like they belong. Customers are more likely to stick with companies that speak to them with respect and dignity, align with their values and build products that address their needs.

Companies can retain customers by asking about, listening to and honoring their preferences. Using their correct pronouns and adopting people-first language (“person with diabetes” instead of “diabetic”) go a long way in making customers feel welcome instead of singled out.

“When we're having any interaction with a customer our goal is not just to simply solve their problem. We want to bring in that component of empathy. We want to make them feel like we're listening, like we really understand them and that we respect them, and that we're working together as a team. Inclusive language is a big way that we signal that. It helps us build better relationships.” — Quinn Crossley, instructional designer at Zendesk

But inclusivity doesn’t stop there. A 2019 Clutch study found that customers prefer companies that share their values and show corporate social responsibility. Of those surveyed, 59 percent of customers said they would stop buying from a company if it didn’t support an issue they cared about.

What’s more, companies that embrace inclusivity and inclusive language have 39 percent higher customer satisfaction, according to Deloitte. That’s because inclusive culture fosters more diverse teams that are better positioned to understand and address different customer needs.

Hiring and retaining the best people

Inclusive language enables teams to attract more talent. Why? Because job candidates expect companies to be inclusive.

Thirty-nine percent of respondents of a 2020 McKinsey survey said they abandoned a potential job opportunity because they felt that the organization wasn’t inclusive. The words used in job descriptions, said by interviewers and written on brand materials impact how candidates view your company’s dedication to inclusivity.

Inclusive language also helps companies make strong hires. That’s because it eliminates the prejudices that obscure top talent from your candidate roster.

Think about the words you use to define the candidate that best matches your company’s culture. Tech companies often lean towards hiring white, male, cisgendered candidates. They use words like “college-educated” and “competitive” to signal what they want in a candidate. Unfortunately, these words limit the talent pool because the majority of college graduates are white. Masculine-coded words like “competitive” tend to turn off female candidates. You miss out on highly skilled people when you only seriously consider the candidates who fit those characteristics.

Think about the words you use to define the candidate that best matches your company’s culture. You miss out on highly skilled people when you only seriously consider the candidates who fit those characteristics.

A 2019 Xactly study showed that women were more likely to hit (or exceed) their sales quotas than men. Yet, despite being over half of the college-educated workforce, women hold less than one-third of B2B sales jobs. They’re also paid less in salary and commissions.

To reduce implicit bias in their recruiting FCB Worldwide Inc. kept the identities of candidates hidden from hiring managers until after they scored technical assessments and scheduled interviews. Cockroach Labs did something similar, swapping out resumes for summaries of candidate experience levels and interests before each interview. Both companies ended up hiring more women (FCB by 19 percent, Cockroach by 50 percent). FCB’s candidate pool also became 38 percent more ethnically diverse.

When people feel like they belong at work, they stick around longer and think better of the companies they work for.

Employees who feel like they belong at a company are 50 percent less likely to leave, according to research from BetterUp. A sense of belonging also improves the way people feel about their employers, making them 167 percent more likely to refer the company to a friend or colleague.

“If all workers felt a strong sense of belonging, for every 10,000 employees, this would equate to an annual savings of nearly $10 million in turnover-related costs.” — BetterUp

Increasing productivity

Non-inclusive environments hurt employee productivity. This culture creates feelings of not belonging and outright fear, which makes it difficult for team members to stay on task and to do their best work.

A two-week study in 2020 found that transgender employees felt more emotional exhaustion the morning after perceiving discrimination in their workplace. Similarly, BetterUp discovered that one micro-exclusion could make a person’s work performance immediately drop by 25 percent.

While non-inclusivity means a drop in productivity, teams that embrace inclusivity and inclusive language experience the opposite. According to BetterUp, employees perform better (by 56 percent) and take fewer sick days (by 75 percent). Their research calculated an annual $52 million productivity gain for 10,000-employee companies whose people felt like they belonged.

“For a 10,000-person company, if all workers felt a high degree of belonging, this would correlate with an annual gain of over $52,000,000 from boosts in productivity.” — BetterUp

Driving innovation

When the people on your teams all think the same, you lose valuable insights and information. You lose options. Diverse teams, on the other hand, can come up with better solutions and build better products because they’re made up of people who have a variety of skills, perspectives, and life experiences.

Take some of the latest Microsoft product offerings, for example:

These products are largely due to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s commitment to inclusivity. Nadella learned to look at people’s needs differently based on his experiences raising his son who has a disability.

“After Zain, things started to change for me,” Nadella said. “It has had a profound impact on how I think, lead and relate to people.”

Diverse teams can come up with better solutions and build better products because they’re made up of people who have a variety of skills, perspectives, and life experiences.

Just because you have a diverse team doesn’t mean you’re getting the most valuable insights from them. You also need a neutral environment where people can share their ideas and implement them. Inclusive language cultivates that space, setting the standard for communicating in a way that’s safe and welcoming for all.

5 examples of companies that embrace inclusive language

These companies are adopting and advocating for inclusive language in big ways.

1. Elite London law firm scrubs gendered language from documents

Clifford Chance is using AI to eliminate all gendered language (“he,” “she,” “chairman”) from every one of the law firm’s legal documents. They’re not the only London law firm taking this step. According to the Daily Mail, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer removed “Dear Sirs” from its correspondence, and Linklaters is considering its own gender-neutral messaging.

“Removing gendered language from our communications is a subtle but impactful way of demonstrating what we stand for.” — Tiernan Brady, global director of inclusion at Clifford Chance

2. AllyBot helps teams use inclusive language on Slack

AllyBot is a Slack integration that companies use to help their teams adopt more inclusive language. It monitors Slack conversations and sends inclusive recommendations via private DM. This nudges employees to make better word choices when communicating with teammates, such as reminding them to use gender-neutral language, like "folks” or “team” instead of “guys."

“Inclusive language is not language policing. It’s not telling someone what they can and can’t say. It’s not a violation of free speech. Inclusive language is about empathy.” — Tom Quirk, founder of AllyBot

3. Pantheon advocates for inclusivity in its community guidelines

The WebOps platform Pantheon created inclusive language guidelines for its community and customers. The guidelines provide examples of ableist, violent, gendered, racial, and classist language to avoid. The guidelines also offer replacement words (“meticulous” instead of “OCD,” “legacy” instead of “grandfathered”) and best practices for having more inclusive conversations and documentation.

“We know inclusive language is essential in building trust, attracting talent, and aiding productivity. But most importantly, it will help us grow a diverse company and community where inclusivity is the very fabric of how we act, speak, feel, and think.” — Pantheon

4. Leading biotech brand gets more intentional about messaging

Amgen attracted top talent in a competitive hiring market by updating its recruiting messages to better reflect the company’s inclusive values. The Amgen team used Textio to identify which specific words would resonate with a more talented and diverse pool of candidates and then adapted their job postings to reflect these word choices. While experimenting with messaging, Amgen discovered that more candidates responded to words like “inclusive work environment" and "encourage."

“Using these [inclusive] phrases results in a more diverse and qualified candidate pool, but also builds their employer brand by emphasizing the qualities they value.” — Andrew Violante, communications manager at Textio

5. United Airlines offers nonbinary options for passengers

United was the first airline to offer nonbinary booking options for customers. As of March 2019, passengers can book as “Mx” or use “unspecified” or ”undisclosed“ in answering gender-specific questions. American Airlines followed suit later that year.

As part of this new priority, United also worked with Human Rights Campaign and The Trevor Project to train staff on inclusivity.

“United is excited to share with our customers, whether they identify along the binary of male or female or not, that we are taking the steps to exhibit our care for them while also providing additional employee training to make us even more welcoming for all customers and employees." — United

How can my team get started with inclusive language?

Use resource groups, learning pathways, and other tactics to advocate for inclusive language within your company.

Signal that inclusivity is a priority

Get proactive about inclusivity by communicating that it’s a priority within your company culture. Do that by making space for people to provide feedback and then acting on it in a big way.

For example, we recently signaled that inclusivity is a priority at Zendesk by taking action on feedback about our company-wide brand resources. When a small group of employees pointed out that our brand resources didn’t account for people with varying visual and cognitive needs, we jumped on making a change. We created more inclusive brand resources, ensuring the colors, contrasts, text, and backgrounds worked for all. This gesture reinforced our commitment to inclusivity for the entire company.

“A small subset of people felt like they could speak up. And that translated into a global resource that all of our 5,000 employees use.” — Quinn Crossley, instructional designer at Zendesk

Provide inclusive language guidelines

Not everyone knows what inclusive language is or is even aware that the words they use might make others feel uncomfortable. By setting company-wide guidelines, you create standards for communication while opening the door for conversation around what inclusive language means for each person in your company.

To start, engage a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant or your own DE&I team. It’s also helpful to review inclusive language resources like the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) Style Guide, the Conscious Style Guide, and the Racial Equity Resource Guide.

Consider adopting the following guidelines:

  1. Is it relevant? Only mention a person’s ability, age, gender, race/ethnicity, military status, or other characteristics if it’s relevant.
  2. Be specific. Don’t lump people into groups because they share similar characteristics. When possible, use the most specific phrasing. For example, if someone is Black, refer to them as “Black” instead of “nonwhite.”
  3. Use person-first language instead of identity-first language. Identity-first language puts the descriptor before the person. Person-first language puts the person first. For example, use “a person with bipolar disorder” instead of “bipolar.” Many groups prefer person-first language because it puts more emphasis on the person than on the mental-health condition, disability, or characteristic.
  4. Ask what the person prefers. While some groups may prefer one type of word or phrasing over another, individuals may not. For example, a person in Alcoholics Anonymous might prefer to be referred to as an “alcoholic,” while someone in another program (or not in a program) may lean toward “person with an alcohol-use disorder.” Someone who has autism may prefer to be called "autistic" instead of "a person with autism." If in doubt, ask!

Get your employees and customers involved when creating these guidelines. Make space for conversations about the biases they experience, what it means to be inclusive, and what language each person prefers.

Create employee resource groups

Employee resource groups are company-sponsored opportunities for people to gather around specific interests and form communities. These groups focus on connecting people within those communities, sharing resources, and making space to talk about problems.

Zendesk employee resource groups cover everything from people with disabilities and veterans to people 40 and older in tech. They’re open to everyone and help make everyone feel welcome and heard. Often, they have a real impact on company policy.

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Our Global Veterans Network, for example, helped establish an extended-leave policy to help those who have to be absent for an extended period for military activities. This policy doesn’t just ensure that they have a job when they return—it also provides resources and training to make up for career opportunities they missed while away.

Several Zendesk employee resource groups worked closely with the DE&I team after the death of George Floyd to provide company-wide resources for employees. They also organized an empathy circle to give everyone a safe space to come together during recent periods of unrest in the U.S.

Offer multiple learning options

Inclusivity training shouldn’t be a once-a-year affair. Reinforce lessons from mandatory training with regular opportunities to learn and grow.

At Zendesk, we offer company-wide trainings on our learning experience platform that address inclusive language, sexual harassment, and other DE&I items as well as inclusivity training for customer advocates. We also provide learning pathways for employees to dig deeper into different aspects of inclusivity, including what it means to be an ally.

Consider inviting guest speakers to talk about how inclusivity impacts them and to foster conversation. You can also reinforce inclusive behavior by installing Slack bots that remind employees to adjust language choices in real time.

Audit your job postings and products

Make sure your job postings and products reflect your company’s focus on inclusivity. To create inclusive job postings, look for language that might deter candidates from underrepresented backgrounds.

Augmented writing tools like Textio make this quick and easy. Your recruiters can also take a more active role in advocating for a more diverse team by reaching out to underrepresented candidates with desired skill sets.

To build inclusive products, work with your resource groups and engineers to rename features or parts of your code library to avoid isolating terms like “whitelist” and “blacklist.” It’s also important to consider design decisions that might make your product less desirable or more difficult to use for certain groups, like customers or employees who are color-blind.

Inclusivity is fluid. Be open to iterating on your beliefs, behaviors, and policies, and advocate for an open-minded, flexible, and curious mindset within your team.

Inclusivity is fluid. It’s impossible to account for every single perspective, preference, and experience. As a work-around, proactively reach out to people to understand what makes them feel welcome and comfortable. Be open to iterating on your beliefs, behaviors, and policies, and advocate for an open-minded, flexible and curious mindset within your team.

Leaders, your companies need inclusive language

It’s easy for leadership to see the inequity and tension in the world and think “it’s not happening at my company.” Here's the thing: It probably is.

Out of 2,000 LGBTQ employees surveyed by BCG in 2020, 75 percent said they had at least one non inclusive interaction in the last year. Almost half of those experienced more than 10 such incidents.

Inclusive language lays the foundation for a safe and welcoming environment where customers and employees feel like they belong. And leadership can make a massive impact on promoting inclusive language within a company. “We find that what leaders say and do makes up to a 70 percent difference as to whether an individual reports feeling included,” said Juliet Bourke, partner, and Andrea Titus, consultant, at Human Capital, Deloitte Australia.

You’ve got a head start in understanding the necessity for inclusivity as well some best practices to run with. Now, learn how you can take the reins on company-wide inclusivity as a leader.