The business impacts of inclusive language

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of an insult knows the adage that words never hurt is a myth. For businesses wanting to get the most out of their communications and create a brand presence that attracts a wide range of customers and the best talent, writing for inclusion is about more than just political correctness. Language matters as it’s how we define and categories the world.

Research released in February 2017 (Missing out: The business case for customer diversity) shows that one in three customers from diverse backgrounds stopped making a purchase in the past 12 months because they were not treated fairly or respectfully (Australian Human Rights Commission and Deloitte).

Consider also that one in five Australians have a visible or invisible disability, ranging from cognitive, to mobility or sensory impairments.  These people need access to a range of services and may come knocking on your door. How they are greeted by your employees, experience your branding or the language used in marketing and communications of your products and services has the power to make them feel valued, or ostracised. And if we don’t intentionally include people, we may unintentionally exclude them…

For businesses communicating in a world where an apparently innocuous tweet or post can be made into a 6.30pm news analysis piece because of offence that has been caused, writing for inclusion (or not!) can have real business ramifications.

So what is inclusive language? Here are some basic principles:

  • Language shouldn’t exclude people. Watch out for turns-of-phrase that creep into the way we speak. Think of ‘normal people’, ‘the blind leading the blind’, or ‘that’s a no-brainer’. Replace ‘chairman’ with chairperson or fireman with ‘fire fighter”. Phones should be ‘attended’ rather than ‘manned’.
  • Avoid stereotypes and deficit-based language. Think how un-empowering the term ‘wheelchair bound’ is versus ‘somebody who uses a wheelchair’. A ‘person living with epilepsy’ is more accurate than saying an ‘epilepsy sufferer’ or ‘victim of epilepsy’.
  • Be respectful. Any woman of voting age should not be called a girl. Though colloquial, categorising females as ‘guys’ is also not recommended as best practice in the workplace.
  • If you’re referring to someone with disability (not ‘the disabled’), the Australian standard is to use person-first language so that the person isn’t identified by their impairment. For example, use ‘customers who are vision impaired’ rather than ‘blind customers’. Think about accessibility rather than disability as it’s far more empowering e.g. ‘accessible bathrooms’ or ‘accessible parking spot’. The toilets are not disabled and neither should the focus be on the person’s impairment.

Valuing diversity should be part of the communications brand you build for your business, if you want to reflect the customers you’re serving. Setting standards and training your workforce is critical to ensure that inclusive language becomes part of business as usual.

As David Morrison AO, ex-Chief of the Australian Army said: “The standard you walk past it the standard you accept” so call out language and behaviour that is not inclusive.

About Grazia Pecoraro

Grazia Pecoraro is the principal consultant of Perspective Hive Diversity Consulting, the hub for thinking differently about difference. Bringing together her years of working in diversity and inclusion, combined with a background in communications, Grazia blends strategy and practical experience to help businesses achieve real business results from embracing difference. Grazia consults to clients across multiple industries, after spending 6+ years leading various diversity practices for Westpac, with some recognised as Australia’s best, including the 2016 Human Rights Award for the Barangaroo campus’ ‘intuitively accessible’ design. She has deep experience in gender equality (Westpac met its 2017-50% target) and rolling out programs such as All In Flex and [email protected] She offers practical diversity experience combined with 15+ years in international PR and reputation management working for iconic brands including Apple, Microsoft and IBM.