Legal Departments as Champions of Inclusive Language

  • June 13, 2019
  • Karen Sadler

Legal Departments as Champions of Inclusive Language

Your legal department serves as the moral compass of your organization, and as such, you have the responsibility to live your organization’s values, including inclusivity. But what does that look like day to day?

Many of the best practices around inclusivity relate to language. When an organization makes it a priority to use inclusive language (both internally and externally), it sends a signal to employees, potential employees, clients, customers and stakeholders that all are welcome and belong. As an in-house counsel, you have the opportunity to position the legal department as an inclusivity champion, setting an example for other departments while adding value to your own.

What is Inclusive Language?

“Words Matter,” an inclusive language guide developed by the British Columbia Public Service, describes inclusive language as “language that is free from words, phrases or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. It is also language that does not deliberately or inadvertently exclude people from feeling accepted.”

An organization that lives and breathes inclusivity—from words through to actions—enjoys higher employee engagement, happiness and retention while expanding its potential customer or client base.

Below is a primer on inclusive language to give you a starting point when examining your current language use, as well as the current practices of your legal department and your organization, followed by additional resources to help you and your colleagues on your journey to greater inclusion.

Breaking it Down

Just as there are many ways in which a person can experience marginalization and exclusion, there are many categories of inclusive language to keep in mind as you become more conscientious about practicing inclusion. The following tips will help you reframe your thinking about how you communicate at work.

Language inclusive of the LGBTQ2S community

When it comes to including the LGBTQ2S community, remember that a person’s gender and/or sexuality should never be assumed.

  • Use the word transgender and never use transgendered. The latter term suggests that being trans is something that happens to someone, as opposed to an identity someone is born with.
  • When somebody tells you their pronouns, use those pronouns. Not doing so negates that person's identity and is tantamount to hate speech.
  • State your own pronouns in your online bios. The more that cisgender people start doing this, the more common a practice it becomes and the less stigma there is attached to it. (Not sure what cisgender means? It refers to people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth.)  
  • When addressing groups, use gender-inclusive language: y'all, folks, everyone, fellow colleagues, students. Drop “ladies and gentlemen.”
  • When addressing one person, try your best to use “you” rather than “ma’am” or “sir.”
  • When speaking indirectly, describe people as people. For example, don't say “the woman over there”; instead, say “that person in the green shirt over there.”
  • When in doubt, it is okay to ask someone what their pronouns are: “What are your pronouns?” Try not to say, “What are your preferred pronouns?”, as that implies it is okay to call the person by pronouns that do not reflect who they are. If you do not have the opportunity to ask someone, the singular “they” is a fine gender-neutral choice.
  • Stop equating biology with gender. Becoming pregnant does not equal “woman.” Having an Adam's apple does not equal “man.”
  • Use the gender-neutral terms “spouse” or “partner” instead of “husband,” “wife,” “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” when asking people you do not know about their personal lives.

Language inclusive of people of colour

Creating a space that is safe for people of colour requires white people to do significant self-reflection on the ways they uphold whiteness, however inadvertently.

  • Do you pride yourself on being the grammar police? Though textbook grammar is important in formal business communications, mocking or nitpicking someone’s grammar in more casual communications is classist and often racist.
  • Capitalize the names of nationalities, peoples and cultural groups, such as Black, Jewish, Asian, etc.
  • Call out microaggressions and tone-policing when you see them. This work often starts with noticing these harmful behaviours in yourself.
    • Microaggressions: These are the small but frequent indignities (usually verbal) that people deal with. Over a lifetime, microaggressions can diminish and exhaust people of colour. Examples include asking someone “Where are you really from?”, assuming someone’s ethnicity just by looking at them or telling someone that their English is really good (the implication being that other people of colour don’t speak English well or that a person of colour must not be a native English speaker).
    • Tone-policing: This is a tool of conversational control that white people often use during uncomfortable conversations about race, distracting from or shutting down the issue being discussed when things get heated. Examples include phrases like “Let’s talk about this when you’re calmer” or “You’d get your point across better if you weren’t so angry.” What this inadvertently does is tell people of colour that your discomfort with the subject matters more to you than the oppression they face every day.

Language inclusive of people who are Métis, Inuit or from a First Nation

It’s important to remember that Indigenous communities and First Nations do not belong to Canada, and their autonomy should be reflected in the language we use.

  • Do not use the phrasing “Canada’s First Nations,” but instead, “First Nations located in Canada” or “Indigenous Peoples living in Canada.” This removes any colonial or paternalistic overtones.
  • Wherever possible, refer to someone as being from their specific band or First Nation, rather than describing them as simply “Indigenous.”
  • Do not use the phrases “spirit animal,” “pow-wow” or “tribe” unless you’re literally referring to those things. Similarly, refrain from saying “circle the wagons” or using the totem pole as a metaphor for the corporate ladder.

Language inclusive of people with disabilities

Everyday language is rife with ableism. It takes a lot of effort to catch ourselves in the act, as words like “crazy” and “insane” tumble from our mouths without a second thought. These words, and many others, are harmful to people living with mental illness. There are also several terms and phrases we commonly use that are hurtful to those living with physical disabilities.

  • Instead of “crazy,” use “wild,” “ridiculous” or “absurd.”
  • Refrain from using the words “blind” and “deaf” when describing someone who is not actually blind or deaf.
  • Do not use the words “handicap” or “cripple/crippled.”
  • Use people-first language. Instead of referring to someone as disabled, refer to them as a person with a disability.
  • Wheelchairs and other assistive devices are not weaknesses or items of pity, but tools of independence. A person is not “wheelchair-bound”; they simply use a wheelchair.

Language inclusive of people experiencing financial instability

  • Refrain from using terms like “poor,” “disadvantaged” and “less fortunate.” Instead, use people-first language and phrasing like “people experiencing homelessness.”

What’s Next?

The above suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reframing the way you and your legal department communicate internally and with others. To become true champions of inclusion within your organizations, and the larger legal and business communities, familiarize yourself with the resources listed here and look for more. Also, remember that both language and our ideas around what constitutes inclusive language (and what does not) are always changing. Keep an open mind and never stop learning!

Inclusive Language Help

There are numerous resources and guidelines about inclusive language available on the web. Here are some good ones to start with:

Karen Sadler is the Marketing & Communication Coordinator at the CCCA, currently on leave.