Language as a vehicle for diversity in the workplace

Language as a vehicle for diversity: Zoom meeting

Most businesses now understand why diversity is important in the workplace. When you value diversity, you get a mix of views, approaches, insights and voices all working together to create great things. But it’s still something companies struggle to achieve. This is why it’s useful to start thinking about language as a vehicle for diversity in the workplace.

The thing is, higher echelons are still populated predominantly by middle aged, middle class white men. And throughout organisations, ingrained patterns of behaviour and expectations can routinely result in the views and work of people who resemble them being valued above people who don’t.

And what you end up with is the norm perpetuating itself – even in organisations that are trying to change.

So a company might use blind recruitment practices to reduce unconscious bias and discrimination. But once new candidates are installed, they immediately get subtle cues and signals that one type of person’s thoughts, views and approaches are valued more than everyone else’s.

Subtle cues about whose voice matters most

These subtle cues are rightly the subject of great scrutiny at the moment. For way too many decades and centuries, the white upper class has automatically enjoyed privilege – not just in terms of wealth, but also in terms of opportunity and access. They unconsciously set the bar – and the closer to the bar you are, the more opportunity and access you’re likely to get. And the further you find yourself from it, the harder it’s going to be for you.

These signals show how close to the bar you are. They’re received consciously and subconsciously – and can make privileged people feel confident, and less privileged people feel discouraged.  They also create a metal framework that makes the views and ideas of privileged people feel intuitively more important and valuable.             

This is an issue for business. Not just because it’s a rotten and outdated way to treat people. But also because diversity of thought and approach consistently results in better decision making, greater innovation and higher levels of resilience. 

Language is one of these cues

We had an interesting discussion this week with an organisation that sees language as one of these signals – and an important vector for diversity, if handled thoughtfully. They wanted our thoughts about making their language more future-looking – and less concerned about conforming to old stereotypes of “correctness”.

It’s an insightful view of the power of language to transmit and instil culture and norms. Because if your organisation clings onto decades-old ideas about what’s “right” in language, it could unwittingly be reinforcing subtle cues that inhibit diverse voices from speaking out.

Here’s an example. If you know your organisation tut-tuts because a sentence starts with an “and” or a “because”, what you could be unwittingly doing is reinforcing a perspective that a certain type of education is “better” and that the people who’ve experienced it are “better” and have more right to speak out and have their views listened to.

It’s a signal that you most value voices that are probably over 50-years-old and that have had a grammar school or private education. This is the exact opposite of language as a vehicle for diversity in the workplace. Instead, it’s language as a vehicle for setting a certain type of background up as being more important than others.

What is your organisation’s language signalling?

Someone who gets their work handed back to them, school-style, with red marks through their sentences that start with, “And” is going to a) feel humiliated and b) avoid humiliation in the future by adopting grammar/private school/1950s-style English norms. Their voice – and possibly their thinking – will be overridden by the prevailing norm. Which means their company will lose the benefit of their different thoughts and approach (and may possibly lose them as an employee if they feel unhappy). 

If, on the other hand, your company’s language is full of business jargon and buzz words, this might act as a signal that you most value people who’ve been to business school. The ambitious will soon realise that to get ahead, they need to use phrases from the business speak bingo card. And if other team members are baffled by the pivoting and open kimonos, they may not speak up – or they may not be listened to if they do.

Is the language your workplace defaults to promoting elistism? Or is it opening your organisation up to all the benefits of diversity?

So if diversity is important to you (and for so many reasons, it should be), just take some time to consider the role your language is playing. Is it promoting elitism? Or opening up your organisation to many views and approaches?

You might also like:

Why do some senior leaders resist engaging language?