When people focus on DEI, they often think about who they’re hiring and asking to participate, rather than how they speak to people. However, using the wrong language in communications can offend, or worse, lead to a crisis at your association. Consider these ideas to communicate effectively with diverse stakeholders.
When well-intentioned associations try to incorporate the right tone, a culturally sensitive voice, or appropriate word choice into their DEI efforts, some organizations are more successful than others.
Poor word choice may create mental or physical health issues for employees and members, muddle your brand, or even lead to an industry crisis. The words we use make the difference between forging positive connections or creating distance in our personal and professional lives.
It’s important to note the difference in diversity, which is who you ask to the table, and inclusion, which means the people you bring on feel respected and accepted. By extension, inclusive language avoids offense by omitting expressions that convey or imply ideas that are sexist, racist, or otherwise biased, prejudiced, or denigrating to any group of people.
Even the “golden rule”—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—has shifted. In an increasingly diverse world, it’s important to treat others the way they want to be treated.
Inclusive language needs to be authentic. It’s not genuine to include different races and ethnicities in your membership brochure, but not in your hiring practices.
Inclusive language speaks to all with respect and sensitivity to differences and promotes equitable opportunities. Because language is constantly evolving, meanings and connotations of words may change quickly. Therefore, it is better to apply inclusive language principles rather than focusing on specific words or phrases.
By approaching new concepts with humility and curiosity and creating intention around inclusive language, we can help create more productive, safe, and profitable organizations and societies.
Steps to Improve Inclusive Language
Here are a few tips to help your association incorporate inclusive language into your DEI efforts:
Realize the power of your words. Language and word choice are powerful tools. Using inclusive language challenges both conscious and unconscious bias.
Create a safe space. Making people feel valued and respected is often based on inclusive language that supports disclosure, declaration, and truth.
See everyone in the way they want to be seen. Using pronouns such as she/he/they allows people to feel that they are being seen in an open accepting environment with less stigma.
Be willing to course-correct along the way. Be open to shifting definitions and new ways to use inclusive language as words are constantly evolving and changing.
Expand your definition. So often, we hear DEI and think of people of color, but DEI includes gender, sexual orientation, people with disabilities, national origin, age, and more. In the association community, working for an association headquartered outside the Washington, DC, area may be a DEI consideration. Discussing these issues increases the likelihood that they will be thought about and incorporated into your association’s actions.
Bring policy into practice. Using inclusive language brings your DEI policies into practice. In other words, put your money where your mouth is. Putting DEI words into action creates trust among your staff and members.
Make inclusive language a priority. Ensure that you weave inclusive language through every part of your association. Build it into your brand guidelines, HR, government relations, membership, publications, social media posts, emails, and website.
Amplify all voices. Each of us the responsibility to help their everyone’s voice be heard. Association executives can help marginalized people tell their story by giving them the space and elevating their voices.
Use plain language. Associations are the alphabet soup of abbreviations and the hometown of jargon. To this end, use the simplest, briefest language possible, and avoid metaphors and complicated jargon that may not clearly convey your meaning to others.
Avoid tokenism. Inclusive language needs to be authentic. It’s not genuine to include different races and ethnicities in your membership brochure, but not in your hiring practices. The quickest way to assess inclusion in your organization: look at the pictures of your senior staff and volunteer leadership. Do they reflect your membership, the current workforce, or the profession you represent?
Be willing to fail. As with anything else in life, getting it right takes practice and courage. Be willing to forgive yourself for any missteps. The important thing is you are trying to get it right.
Never stop learning. Be humble. Be curious. Ask questions, listen, do your own work. Your efforts will certainly be noticed and appreciated.
Keeping these inclusive language tips in mind will help provide a solid foundation for your DEI efforts.