Rooting out exclusionary and outdated workplace language

By Pamela Culpepper

May 14, 2022
Rooting out exclusionary and outdated workplace language

In a job-seeker’s market, there is no room to let language get in the way of recruiting or allow it to exclude existing talent. With candidates looking at multiple options, they are likely to turn down opportunities from companies that use outdated or exclusionary terms and phrases used during interviews or on company collateral—some may not even bother or feel comfortable applying. The workplace is no longer one size fits all; it’s no longer a “boys club” that women and nonbinary folks are going to force themselves to fit into. 

As offices open up, companies are trying to make up for the losses in their workforce over the past couple of years—retention is at the forefront of their minds. In a (mostly) post-pandemic world, there is zero tolerance for companies that maintain old practices, and there are new expectations for intentional action beyond performative talk. Breaking down and rebuilding workplace culture is hard work, but there are easier steps that everyone can take—like watching what you say. 

While restructuring workplace culture is a complex and multilayered challenge, updating language to be more inclusive is a step everyone at every level can take. If companies want to recruit and retain a diverse workforce, it’s up to them to update and educate the language they use. People in senior positions need to lead by example, look for and work toward educating themselves, and setting a new standard of expectations. If you don’t know where to start, try incorporating these four terms and phrases into your workplace vocabulary. 

Drop “Minority” and pick up “Historically Excluded”

For decades the term “minority” has been used to describe anyone who is not a straight white cisgender man. Not only is it incorrect, as the majority of the world is non-white, but minority is a word that creates a dynamic of unequal power. There is nothing minor about Black or brown individuals, nor gay or trans individuals. They have been left out and excluded from opportunities throughout history, so try acknowledging that. 


Flip “Maternity leave” to “Parental leave”

Let’s start off by acknowledging that any leave after welcoming a child into your family is not a vacation. It’s also not a “mother”-only job. Saying “parental leave” allows for families with same-sex parents, stay-at-home dads, and people who don’t identify as male or female to be included. It also is a reminder that this “break” is not actually from work but rather the start of the new or expanded job of being a parent. 

Forget “Grandfathered in” and make it “Preapproved”

Like a lot of outdated terminology in the U.S., this term has heavy roots in our country’s racist history. The grandfather clause was nothing more than a way to take away voting rights from Black people while maintaining said rights for lower-educated white people. Next time you’re thinking of customers who are “grandfathered in,” consider instead saying they’re “preapproved.”

“Hey you guys:” let’s use “ya’ll” or “folks” 

Greeting more than one person with a “hey guys” has been a habit and subconscious choice for so many of us. It feels harmless, but we are automatically labeling and identifying multiple individuals as males. This term may feel small, but for people who identify as female, nonbinary, or anywhere else on the transgender spectrum, it can be isolating and invalidating to their experience. Drop the gender and pick up easier and more generalized and inclusive terms like “ya’ll” or “folks.”  

There is no more hiding behind “unconscious bias” because, after the past two years, we are all conscious of what needs to be changed. It’s putting in the time to learn how to intentionally change and hold ourselves accountable. Companies don’t need to change only their language among their employees’ personal identities but corporate language that has been rooted in our vernacular for decades. 

This will not be an easy fix and should not have to be something leaders do by themselves—we’re building this together. This work can be exhausting, it can feel overwhelming, but that comes with deconstructing a system we were born into. You’ll try not to step in it, but you will, and then you’ll adjust. The point is you try, actively. 

As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Pamela Culpepper is the founding partner of HaveHerBack, a culture consultancy dedicated to changing minds, behaviors, and lives by working with companies to tackle equity issues for all historically excluded groups. This seasoned HR and DEI leader also sits on the board for Prada.


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