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3 Principles for Crafting Inclusive Internal Communications

POSTED ON 
October 26, 2021

Using inclusive language is a great way to show — not just tell — your organizational values to employees and prospective talent. It serves as a kind of signpost of an organization’s culture, and it means a LOT to employees from historically-excluded groups when we get our language right and recognize the nuances in their identity.  

ACCORDING TO THE LINGUISTIC SOCIETY OF AMERICA, INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE “ACKNOWLEDGES DIVERSITY, CONVEYS RESPECT TO ALL PEOPLE, IS SENSITIVE TO DIFFERENCES, AND PROMOTES EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES.”

While there’s no magic bullet for nailing inclusive employee communications, here are 3 general principles to remember:

1. PERSON-FIRST LANGUAGE  

Person-first language aims to make the whole person – not their specific differences – the focus of our communication. Person-first language honors the individual for who they are, rather than reducing them to what they have.

We see this issue especially in health communications. Our society is fundamentally ableist, and it operates on the assumption that there’s a “normal” body or mind, and that anyone who deviates from this standard is defective, needs our pity, or needs to be blamed for their health conditions.  

Inclusive language RESISTS this ableism and describes people as people-first, not condition-first. For example, when someone has Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, we say…  

Saying “person suffering from AIDS” frames them as someone who needs our pity, or is somehow afflicted because they do not have that “normal” body that ableism says we should all have. Ensure that people’s health conditions are given dignity, not pity.

2. SELF-IDENTIFICATION  

Inclusive communications strive to use words that reflect a person’s choice in how they talk about themselves. While DEI style guides try to make commonly preferred terms clear, there’s no way to know the personal preferences of every individual. Try to ask if you’re unsure, and enable people to self-identify.  

For example, in the body acceptance movement, individuals self-identify as “fat.” And this is why it’s especially important to verify terminology with employees, because this is a personal choice, and personal preferences vary. What you don’t want to say is a “person who struggles with weight,” because framing fatnesss as a “struggle” is ableist and denies people the dignity to be who they are. 

3. ACTIVE VOICE  

And finally, we have active voice (my favorite!). Active voice puts the subject, or actor, of the sentence in the role of performing the action. Essential to conveying clarity and reducing bias toward systems of power, active voice directly names perpetrators of harm, rather than focusing on the object of the harm.  

This is something we often see in journalistic headlines, but it certainly applies to employee stories as well. For example:  

Don’t obscure the perpetrator and put unnecessary focus on the object of harm. Saying people were “injured” invites scrutiny and judgment, rather than focusing on who is doing the injuring – the police. Name ‘em!

INCLUSION IS A JOURNEY. LET’S GET STARTED.

It’s natural to feel some anxiety about writing inclusive employee communications, but your journey can’t begin until you take the first step. Our new resource, the DEI Style Guide, is here to equip you with additional best practices and more examples of what kinds of language you should (and shouldn’t!) use.

For more bite-sized brilliance, subscribe to our monthly employee engagement newsletter, the Inkwell, and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest!

Farida Habeeb, Ph.D.
SENIOR STRATEGIST

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