How to Build an Inclusive Culture: 5 Phrases to Avoid

January 28, 2019

A key to building an inclusive work environment is being strategic with the words you use.

The movie The Big Short is the perfect (true) parable of why inclusive cultures are so important.

For those who haven’t seen it, its premise is this: leading up to the 2008 financial collapse, the vast majority of people in finance – most of whom are from similar backgrounds – were all sharing one school of thought. There were a few people who thought differently from the rest, and they were laughed at and alienated.

Of course, you know what happened. The many who shared the same school of thought all went bankrupt, whereas the few who thought differently made unbelievable amounts of money.

The point? There’s nothing more dangerous than everyone thinking the same way. 

In practice, there are two ways to accomplish that goal. First, you need a diverse team, where you have different people from different backgrounds who can offer different perspectives. Second, you need an inclusive team, where each member of it feels like they belong and therefore shares their opinion.

The ideal state: a team where a 23-year-old single female from India, a 35-year-old mother-of-two from Toronto and a 55-year-old father-of-seven from Texas all feel equally empowered to share their opinions. If you have that type of diversity and inclusion on your team, your team has a good chance of being successful.

Okay, so how is that done? Well, really, to find out, you should watch Daisy Lovelace’s LinkedIn Learning course, Leading Inclusive Teams. There’s a ton of great best practices in it.

In one video, Lovelace explains specific phrases you should use – and the ones you shouldn’t use – if you want to build an inclusive culture. While they seem minor, just making these changes will help all of your employees feel like they belong on your team.

The Specific Phrases You Should – And Shouldn’t – Use if You Want to Build an Inclusive Culture

“The words you use signal who's in and who's out,” Lovelace said. “Your language is culturally loaded whether or not you intend for it to be. Setting the tone for an inclusive team involves choosing your words carefully.”

What are some examples? Here are a few:

1. Use the word ‘guest’, instead of partner or spouse.

Say you are throwing a holiday party for your team. Encourage them all to bring one guest, instead of using the word “partner” or “spouse” or anything else.


It’s the most inclusive. If you say spouse, you alienate those who obviously aren’t married. Even partner, while broader, alienates people who just want to bring a friend or family member.

By using the word guest, everybody feels comfortable bringing whoever they want. And that’s ultimately what you want to achieve.

2. Avoid gender-specific language and pronouns, whenever possible.

There are a few examples of this. And while they might seem minor, they reinforce the idea that some jobs are for one gender, while others are for the other.

For example:

  • Use business executive, not business man. Same goes for salesperson and firefighter (instead of salesman and fireman). Women are capable of doing all of these jobs – using male-dominant language reinforces old stereotypes.
  • Use gender neutral pronouns, whenever possible. This means using “they” instead of “him” or “her.” Example, if you are talking about a job you want to fill, using the word “he” or “she” will signal to others you want a man or a woman for that role. Conversely, using “they” signals its open to all.

3. Be particularly mindful of the adjectives you use when writing a job description.

Going along with the last point, you should never use gender-specific words when writing a job description. But you also should be mindful of the adjectives you use to describe the position.

Studies show words like “independent”, “dominant” and “fast-paced” are words that attract men and repel women. Conversely, words like “collaboration”, “supportive” and “cooperation” are much more appealing to women.

“All of these words are fine to use but it matters how you use them and you want to make sure that your language is balanced so that you equally appeal to men and women,” Lovelace said.

4. Be consistent with how you describe situations.

“The words you use to describe specific behaviors can be biased and reinforce negative stereotypes about minorities and women,” Lovelace said. “It happens fairly frequently. Two nearly identical situations occur but get described very differently based on the people involved.”

A classic example is a man can be assertive in a meeting and others will describe him as being a driven leader. Conversely, a woman can act the same way and be described as bossy or pushy.

How you describe the behavior is up to you – maybe you want your team to act really assertively, maybe you want to foster more of a collaborative culture. The important thing is being consistent, so all members of your team feel like they are being treated fairly.

5. Avoid local idioms.

Every area in the world has its own unique expressions. For example, in the UK, saying “Bob’s your uncle” means basically that you got this. The problem?

Most people outside the UK have never heard that before. It makes people feel alienated or just outright confused.

Same goes for people like myself (i.e., sports fanatics). Using a bunch of sport metaphors – "we don’t want to outkick our coverage", "let’s go no-huddle on this" – alienates and confuses everyone who doesn’t watch sports on your team.

The Takeaway: Good Intentions Are Great, But It Comes Down to Actions

The bigger point? Hopefully, must of us aspire to lead inclusive teams, where people feel like they belong. But sometimes are words can transcend our intentions.

And, ultimately, what counts isn't are intentions. But our actions.

So, by picking your words carefully, you can avoid unintentionally making some people feel like they don’t belong. And that’ll lead to a more engaged, more inclusive and more successful team.

Want to build an inclusive culture? Watch Daisy Lovelace’s full course, Leading Inclusive Teams.

Topics within the course include: