From hiring to retention: Using language to create inclusive workplaces.

Nov 22 - 2022 | 5 min read

Sahar Powell is a Senior Consultant in Executive Search at The Big Search. Sahar is responsible for diversity recruiting in our tech practice. This means that we actively attempt to provide our clients diverse long- and shortlists in terms of gender, age, and nationality.


We cannot underestimate the power of language to eliminate stereotypes from everyday life. As a tool, it can either perpetuate or break the biases built into everyday actions and decisions.

Deloitte defines inclusive language as the recognition that words matter and that word choice can be used, intentionally or unintentionally, to include or exclude others. The key is to consciously avoid assumptions that those you interact with share the same lived experiences as you, or that they identify themselves as you perceive them to be.

According to recent research 'belonging' is identified as a top human capital issue organisations face today. 79% of organisations agree that fostering a sense of belonging in the workforce is essential to their company’s success in the next 12—18 months. That said, only 17% of organisations have the processes in place to advance these initiatives.

Nurturing a sense of belonging is a prerequisite to eliminating biases in workplaces. A work environment that fosters mutual respect and appreciation motivates employees to bring their best to the table, boosts productivity, and keeps engagement levels high. How can language help?

At a foundational level, affirmative language aims to avoid gendered, heteronormative, ableist, and prejudiced language. The most challenging aspect of language is its fluidity - meaning that it is constantly changing with time and context. Meanings and connotations are rarely static. That’s why it’s important to embed and practice inclusive language principles, rather than learning specific phrases from time to time.

Incorporating inclusive language into company culture: At every stage.

Inclusive behaviour is the key to real and sustainable culture change. Even before a new employee signs a contract, there are various touchpoints where they can get a feel for your company’s culture. Think about the job descriptions you share, the images you use on your website, and how you conduct interviews. These are pivotal moments for communicating the company's commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Job descriptions, if not crafted thoughtfully, could make candidates feel excluded. The unintentional use of language that is gender-coded, aggressive, or discriminatory fails to give the impression of an inclusive workplace. Job postings with superficial or impractical requirements could also discourage eligible candidates from applying.

For job descriptions to reflect the values of a workplace, seeking feedback from current employees is always a good practice. Online resources or tools also help tailor more inclusive job descriptions or emails. For example, Texito is an augmented writing tool that identifies gendered language in writing.

In a nutshell, it is essential to make sure that the job descriptions speak to a diverse range of potential applicants, while still being specific about the role you want to fill.

Seven tips for inclusive communication.

  • Create a style guide of inclusive language to use, and terms to avoid, to help colleagues make good decisions when communicating.
  • Use people-first language such as “disabled people” instead of “people with disabilities”.
  • Encourage teammates to add their pronouns to their Slack profiles and email signatures.
  • Use inclusive language tools, for example in Microsoft Office, to replace biased language with neutral alternatives.
  • Use gender-neutral terms such as “they”, “partner”, and “parent” and avoid unnecessary distinctions such as “lady boss”.
  • Refrain from using words with negative cultural connotations.
  • Listen to others when they share words or phrases that are harmful.

Workplaces are spaces where people bond, inspire each other and grow. Simple things like workplace conversations where everybody feels included are building blocks of meaningful workplace relationships.

An inclusive environment will see an unconstrained flow of unique perspectives and sharing of experiences. Not only does this add to a rich culture but also plays a pivotal role in shaping growth mindsets at an individual level.

Advantages of making the effort.

Inclusive language could help reduce cognitive load and lessen psychological strain, thereby improving performance. Companies that demonstrate inclusive behaviour attract a diverse talent pool. Candidates find it easier to visualise themselves working somewhere they are valued and respected for who they are. In turn, it enables organisations to hire candidates who can leverage their differences to enhance the culture of the workplace.

When employees feel valued and heard, they are most likely to stay longer in their current workplaces. An inclusive workplace not only scores well in employee satisfaction and retention, but also reflects positively on the company's goodwill and reputation as a great place to work.

Ultimately, diverse teams attract diverse customers. By creating better customer experiences, it puts companies in a stronger position to expand their customer base.

Inclusive language is the recognition that words matter. We all have a responsibility to incorporate it into our daily working lives - particularly as workforces grow increasingly diverse. Actively choosing to use inclusive language brings everyone into the conversation and shapes a better culture that more people will want to be part of. It’s what’s needed to foster the sense of belonging that so many brands are striving to create.

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