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Jul 27, 2022

You’ve probably noticed it. Years of quarantining and virtual meetings have ushered in new levels of at-work casualness. Whether it’s emojis punctuating professional emails, to yoga pants becoming de rigueur, the world of work is ‘different’.

But what isn’t often remarked upon is the very clear fact that our more informal nature of business is also working its way into the words we use too.

Some of this is welcomed. Informal language is often more friendly and congenial. But at the other end of the spectrum relaxed chat between two colleagues can create misunderstandings or otherwise make an employee feel unwelcome at work. This should be something HRDs need to worry about, because there’s never been a time when so many different generations and people with diverse experiences and backgrounds have converged.

The problem though, is that few HR professionals want to be branded the language-police. At the same time however, loose language can also give rise to unintended offenses. So what can HRDs do?

Here are some suggestions to help your company adopt more inclusive language. We look at terms to avoid and alternatives that are less charged, to make everyone feel more included:

1) Beware cultural sensitivities

Terms with implicit bias are offensive and culturally insensitive. Some of these non-inclusive terms are obvious. Terms like chairman, salesman, manpower, illegal alien, and homosexual disregard people and their preferences. Inclusive alternatives are chair or chairperson, salesperson, staffing, undocumented worker or foreign national, and gay, lesbian or LGBT.

Other terms sound harmless enough to some people but are closely identified with racist connotations. These offensive terms include tribe or tribal knowledge, blackballed, blacklist, white-glove service, grandfather clause, gyp or gypped, and slaving away.

In light of this, champion inclusive language by using terms like team or team knowledge, rejected, blocklist, premier customer service, legacy, duped and working hard.

One final example of culturally insensitive messaging involves using disparaging terms that put people down instead of lifting them up. Disrespectful terms include girls (when addressing women), ladies and victim. Instead of patronizing employees, emphasize inclusive language that focuses on respect and equity. Inclusive examples are women, folks and survivor.

2) Focus on preferences and inclusivity

Inclusive language is really all about respect, and this respect includes using terms your employees and colleagues prefer. Some words may seem innocuous: terms like husband, wife, guys, ladies, or mom and dad. While perfectly appropriate when you know the person’s preferences, these words assume certain things; they don’t make space for relationship alternatives or include more diverse types of people.

Instead of saying husband or wife, choose to refer to spouse or partner, thereby respecting a broader spectrum of relationships. Parent and guardian are more inclusive references than mom and dad.

And while “Hey you guys!” is fairly common vernacular, it excludes female-identifying individuals. “Hey everybody!” or “Hey you all!” is a far more inclusive exclamation.

3) Avoid generalities

Speaking of old-school references, some dated terms in our vernacular may in fact rely on antiquated stereotypes and vagaries that glaze over an employee’s strengths or personal experience.

For example, take the word bossy. It’s a negative word that is disproportionately applied to females, and in the process, it disparages the drive and leadership qualities demonstrated by an entire gender. And yet, those same characteristics are often championed when demonstrated by males. Some more inclusive alternatives include highly motivated, driven or results oriented.

Other antiquated generalities like crazy, poor and alcoholic have a way of belittling people and fail to recognize the challenges a person may experience. Some more inclusive alternatives are particular, low-income, and alcohol use disorder.

Sometimes the words we say may not carry archaic stereotypes, but instead inadvertently represent exclusion. Words like ninja and rockstar aren’t considered derogatory but ARE perceived as male-oriented and may be off-putting to female candidates when used in posted job descriptions. Some inclusive and specific alternatives are multi-tasker, fast learner, and talented.

People first, differences second

To focus on inclusive language is to take great effort to see each person for who they are, regardless of the differences they may represent. And this effort means we might have to lean into our sensitivity and do away with dated expressions loaded with unconscious bias.

Terms you may perceive as harmless – blind spot, tone-deaf, sexual preference, and opposite sex – inadvertently denigrate employees and play on stereotypes that foster exclusion. Inclusive alternatives are problem area, doesn’t listen at times, sexual orientation and different sex.

Other terms reference differences first, and people second. So, instead of minority, say person of color or under-represented. Instead of special needs, say person with a disability. Instead of wheelchair-bound, say person who uses a wheelchair. Instead of senior, say older adults or persons 65 and older. Making the person the priority affirms a culture of inclusivity and lets employees know they are genuinely seen, heard, respected and valued.

Clarity, clarity, clarity

The idea of communicating in a way that makes employees feel comfortable is rooted in clarity, empathy and the good old fashioned golden rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated. By leaning into mutual respect and appreciating differences, companies can uncover limitless potential and strengthen collaborative processes for the good of everyone. When we communicate clearly and with inclusiveness, we can lessen microaggressions and misunderstandings in the workplace.


Non-Inclusive Term

Inclusive Term

He/She (as a general term)

Husband or WifeSpouse or Partner
Chairman/ChairwomanChair or Chairperson
BlindspotProblem area
Tone-deafDoesn’t listen at times
Tribe or tribal knowledgeTeam or team knowledge
Too many chiefsToo many cooks in the kitchen
ManhoursWork hours or staff hours
BlacklistBlock or blocklist
White-glove servicePremier customer service
Grandfather clause/grandfathering inLegacy
Girl or girls (if adults)Woman or women
Guys (if not all men)Folks, all, everybody, team
LadiesWomen, folks
Culture fitCulture add or values fit
Minority/Non-whitePerson of color, under-represented, BIPOC
Illegal alienUndocumented worker/foreign national
Special needsPerson with a disability
OCD/insane/crazyPrecise, fastidious, particular
Mental disabilityNeurodiverse
HomosexualGay, lesbian or LGBTQ
Sexual preferenceSexual orientation
Opposite sexDifferent sex
Sex changeTransitioning
Gyp/gypped (comes from gypsy)Duped
Third worldDeveloping countries
PoorLow income
Wheelchair boundPerson who uses a wheelchair
Mentally illPerson with a mental health condition
Addict/Substance abuserSubstance use disorder
AlcoholicAlcohol use disorder
RockstarFast learner, talented
SeniorsOlder adults, persons 65 and older
Go off the reservationDisagree with the group
Slaving awayWorking hard/nonstop
LameNot enjoyable, lousy
Mom/Dad (if family structure unknown)Parents or guardians