Rethinking language that works at work

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.

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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 Wife Spouse or Partner
Chairman/Chairwoman Chair or Chairperson
Salesman/Saleswoman Salesperson
Blindspot Problem area
Tone-deaf Doesn’t listen at times
Tribe or tribal knowledge Team or team knowledge
Too many chiefs Too many cooks in the kitchen
Manhours Work hours or staff hours
Manpower Staffing
Blackballed Rejected
Blacklist Block or blocklist
Whitelist Allow
White-glove service Premier customer service
Grandfather clause/grandfathering in Legacy
Girl or girls (if adults) Woman or women
Guys (if not all men) Folks, all, everybody, team
Ladies Women, folks
Culture fit Culture add or values fit
Minority/Non-white Person of color, under-represented, BIPOC
Illegal alien Undocumented worker/foreign national
Special needs Person with a disability
OCD/insane/crazy Precise, fastidious, particular
Mental disability Neurodiverse
Homosexual Gay, lesbian or LGBTQ
Sexual preference Sexual orientation
Opposite sex Different sex
Sex change Transitioning
Bossy Driven
Gyp/gypped (comes from gypsy) Duped
Third world Developing countries
Poor Low income
Victims Survivors
Wheelchair bound Person who uses a wheelchair
Mentally ill Person with a mental health condition
Addict/Substance abuser Substance use disorder
Alcoholic Alcohol use disorder
Ninja Multi-tasker
Rockstar Fast learner, talented
Seniors Older adults, persons 65 and older
Go off the reservation Disagree with the group
Slaving away Working hard/nonstop
Lame Not enjoyable, lousy
Mom/Dad (if family structure unknown) Parents or guardians

David Weisenfeld is a legal editor covering diversity, equity and inclusion for XpertHR. He is also the host of the company’s award-winning podcast series on workplace issues. Prior to joining XpertHR, David served as U.S. Supreme Court correspondent and editor-in-chief of a nationwide legal news service, as well as co-anchor of the company's newscasts and editor of its employment law product. David's work also has appeared in the ABA's Supreme Court Preview, Employee Rights Quarterly, USA Today and The Washington Times.