LGA Inclusive Language Guide

“Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”


Introduction

This Guide aims to help employers to understand what inclusive language is and the important role it can play in embedding equality, equity, diversity and inclusion (EEDI) across the workplace. It should be used in addition to the range of resources available on the LGA website to support the development of environments in which curious yet respectful behaviours, conversations and wider communication take place. 

This Guide contains 12 principles arranged across four levels of influence: 

  • Organisational
    • Principle 1: Culture, the foundation of inclusive communication
    • Principle 2: Drive change through systems
    • Principle 3: The ongoing inclusion cycle
    • Principle 4: Commit to openness and learning
    • Principle 5: A place for challenge and conflict
  • Leadership
    • Principle 6: Clarify the destination
    • Principle 7: Role model qualities and behaviours to get there
  • Interpersonal
    • Principle 8: People are people, first
    • Principle 9: The lasting impact of history
    • Principle 10: Respecting people from marginalised and minoritised backgrounds
  • Intrapersonal
    • Principle 11: Understand knowledge and confidence gaps
    • Principle 12: Recognise that intention does not always align with impact.

Principle 1: Culture, the foundation of inclusive communication

Organisational culture is instrumental in reflecting and enhancing EEDI within organisations. In research, several themes feature as characteristics of an inclusive culture:

  1. strategy, behaviour and values that are visibly recognisable as championing EEDI across all areas of an organisation, have meaning and are properly embedded.
  2. ownership and accountability from the organisation’s leadership and clear and consistent communication disseminated throughout.
  3. inclusion and interconnectedness of diverse people, both internally and externally.
  4. good understanding of the community represented and served, with representation of this at all levels of the internal and external structure.
  5. learning and development that reflects the desired culture and is flexible, diverse in content and methods, appropriately quality assured, consistently engaged with by staff and reviewed regularly.

There are several LGA tools that can assist you in understanding and directing your organisational culture including the:

Principle 2: Drive change through systems

Embedding and driving change at a systems level can help to increase awareness of the language to be used within your organisation. Opportunities to do this include via:

  • style and language guides – developed collaboratively and reviewed periodically
  • performance and appraisal processes and templates
  • recruitment processes and templates
  • HR policies and protocol – including those pertaining to induction, behaviour, bullying and harassment
  • IT systems and software.

Language and communication are informed, enabled and controlled by a range of factors. Adopting systemic thinking to understand the relationship between the factors can help organisations to achieve effective and impactful change.

Principle 3: The ongoing inclusion cycle

Language is not static and, as such, developing environments and skills for positive EEDI communication cannot be a linear process with a specific ‘end point’. Understanding what inclusive language looks like for your organisation should be an ongoing cyclical process, features of which include:

  • a diverse group of individuals designing the process and able to be self-empowered as a result, especially those who are typically marginalised and/or minoritised by language 
  • leaders proactively invested, involved and seeking to understand the lived experiences of staff and residents, and the barriers to inclusion and inclusive language at many levels – structural to intrapersonal
  • the use of safe spaces where participants can share openly, without fear of ramifications. A skilled facilitator can ensure conversations are properly managed and well-being is appropriately cared for 
  • availability of support for those leading and/or participating in the process who may experience triggers and/or other emotions that negatively impact upon their well-being
  • sufficient resources to properly lead and commit to the process
  • clear, regular communication that sets the tone and direction, outlines the relevant internal and external context, including data and insight, and thanks contributors
  • a clear and written down review process outlining how, when and who will review and agree the terms and expressions used within your organisation.

Principle 4: Commit to openness and learning

No individual or organisation is perfect and, as such, the use of language to underpin and drive inclusion relies upon a commitment to openness and learning at all levels. Indicators of a culture of openness include:

  • an understanding of organisational maturity and readiness: Being clear on the extent to which open conversations can or cannot currently take place in your organisation enables you to establish priorities and a plan based on your current context. Developing openness might require upskilling key individuals or teams through leadership or team coaching, growth mindset development, active listening skill development or opportunities to listen to marginalised and minoritised staff feedback without judgement or defence
  • learning about diverse experiences and identities: This enables staff at all levels to form and join networks and groups, develop a programme of cross-cultural events and celebrations and implement systems and processes that normalise inter-hierarchical, cross-departmental and cultural sharing and learning such as reciprocal mentoring schemes. Importantly, you should ensure that staff can attend such events as a paid part of their working schedule and without ramifications
  • staff feedback processes and mechanism: Feedback loops should result in visible action, accountability and feedback to staff by leaders
  • appropriate support: When open conversations take place there may be challenges, revelations and a range of emotions that surface, possibly for the first time. Support should be available and promoted to help to manage the potential impact 
  • allow mistakes: They are necessary learning opportunities.

Principle 5: A place for challenge and conflict

A 2020 Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development report found that conflict is a normal part of organisational life and a common occurrence at work according to employers and employees. 

Although it is natural to want to avoid conflict, it is not always a bad thing. It can create opportunities for positive change if managed fairly and positively and should therefore not be avoided at all costs.

The following can support a positive experience and response to conflict and challenge:

  • support for when things go wrong – clear boundaries set and processes to follow should things go wrong, including restorative justice approaches and external expertise if necessary
  • understand and utilise lessons learned – share with the organisation for all to benefit
  • evidence informed tools/strategies – such as ‘Appreciative Inquiry’4 to explore diverse views and experiences, and support respect, acceptance and inclusion.

Minor disagreements can occur, fester and escalate if not addressed and resolved at the earliest opportunity.

Principle 6: Clarify the destination

Providing clear vision and direction of the kind of organisation and behaviours that you want is a simple way for leaders to develop conditions for curious, open and sensitive conversations. This should include: 

  • organisational values: Set the scene for staff and stakeholders, grounding a vision in a language everyone can understand
  • EEDI mission: Consider how EEDI, and inclusive language specifically, aligns with your wider local government context and make that connection clear to everyone. Your mission could acknowledge people’s experiences whilst stating an aspiration of change toward greater inclusion for the workforce
  • information: Clearly articulated information and/or guidance to help people along the way, ensuring that they:
    • know what the plan is to progress towards more confident, open and inclusive dialogue
    • understand the plan, irrespective of their background, experience or role
    • are clear on the indicators of good progress and/or performance against your vision/plan. 

Principle 7: Role model qualities and behaviours to get there

Leaders can help to increase staff confidence to have curious and respectful conversations about difference by role modelling qualities which, when adopted, normalise such conversations. Being personable, relatable and effective in regular communication with staff, avoiding defensiveness, fragility or hostility when faced with discomfort or challenge, acknowledging the difficulties of knowing all the ‘right’ words or phrases but stating your intention and expressing a genuine apology when causing harm are some of the ways leaders can do this.

Role modelling such behaviours reinforces them, inspires others to follow and creates a feeling of psychological safety. Leaders may need to seek support and/or training to develop these skills and competencies.

Principle 8: People are people, first

Language about backgrounds, characteristics and experiences can include social constructs, stereotypes and other language that can depersonalise, dehumanise and devalue individuals and groups. A few simple changes can result in people being seen, included and valued for who they are. For example: 

  • refer to a person’s identity or characteristics only when it is relevant, necessary and/or led by the person
  • be specific when referring to people as opposed to using broad labels
  • use and encourage the use of the preferred language of people, such as salutations, names and pronouns when you know them
  • recognise the advantage and oppression created by structures and institutions in society that impact people’s lived experiences
  • recognise there is no universally agreed way of using terms about diverse groups and people, and that the ways agreed today are likely to evolve and change over time
  • use strengths-based language that affirms, empowers and recognises a person’s ability
  • avoid making assumptions about people and groups; where there is doubt, ask or undertake research 
  • don’t avoid conversations with or about people for fear of getting it wrong, have the conversations, ask for help in having these in the best way and ensure that the issues that need to be discussed are addressed.

Putting people first doesn’t require fretting over having every other word or feeling censored, however it does require empathetic, conscious and considered thoughts and actions.

Principle 9: The lasting impact of history

History plays a significant role in shaping modern day terminology and references with far-reaching effects on EEDI within the workplace. History also impacts people’s feelings and experiences about the language used to describe them or a group they belong to now, with some language originating from events of mass violence and trauma such as colonialism, the Holocaust and the oppression of LGBTQ+ communities. In addition, the structural advantage that some people experience today, such as white and heterosexual people, cannot be divorced from historical events.

Inclusive language recognises inaccuracies, oppression and erasure in language and brings awareness and intention to addressing these. Recognising the impact of history on workplace inclusion and people’s experiences enables inclusive choices to be made.

Principle 10: Respecting people from marginalised and minoritised backgrounds

Although it is important that underrepresented or marginalised individuals or groups have a role in sharing their experiences and developing solutions, should they wish to, it should not be assumed that this is their responsibility or that they would want to be involved.

Engaging in EEDI efforts can be emotional or traumatic for people impacted by inequality, oppression and discrimination. The personal cost of choosing to be involved in developing solutions can be high, with research showing that experiences of trauma, racial trauma and exclusion are already experienced at disproportionately higher rates by LGBTQ+, black and neurodivergent people respectively in the workplace. 

Individuals from marginalised and/or minoritised groups cannot reflect the views of their entire group, be expected to know ‘all the answers’ or wish to be involved in change because of their identity or experience. 

Language can help to build inclusion and a sense of community within your organisation and local area, however, it is the responsibility of everyone, particularly leaders and those with structural advantage, to use their position to set, encourage and role model new communication to spread across the workplace.

Principle 11: Understand knowledge and confidence gaps

People often lack confidence in talking to others about areas of difference. Reflecting on your lack of confidence to pinpoint its source can be a helpful step in the journey towards having open, curious and sensitive conversations on EEDI. Making simple changes to your use of language so that it is more inclusive need not be clumsy, strenuous or risky and can be done by anyone. For example, changing “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen” to “Good afternoon, everyone” will largely be risk free and go unnoticed by people. However, people who are not “ladies” or “gentleman” may recognise the difference, feel included and that they belong.

You should not assume that the reflection process will be comfortable. Understanding gaps in confidence and knowledge will likely see staff and leaders moved beyond their comfortable or deeply rooted views of the world and groups which may rest on inaccurate, outdated and/or exclusionary views and perceptions of people.

Principle 12: Recognise that intention does not always align with impact

Sometimes, despite best efforts, well-meaning communication can have a negative impact. In these situations, it is important to reflect on the chain of events to understand where things might have gone wrong and why. Such circumstances should be taken as a learning opportunity as opposed to a reason to terminate efforts altogether.

The potential for these situations to arise will always be there. A constant process of review and conscious self-awareness as individuals can help with foreseeing issues before they arise and enable you to try to make things right. For example, reflecting on the impact of a friendly ‘joke’, a ‘cultural’ lunchtime menu or a so-called ‘compliment’ may reveal a negative impact and the opportunity to apologise and make amends. 

Implementing a process to support reflection and reparation routinely taking place, rather than relying on individual discretion, can contribute to an inclusive culture where staff know how to deal with such situations.

Eight tips for action

1. Prepare for conversations

Much is written in psychology about the impact of ‘inner voice’, that is, what we tell ourselves, the visualisations we create in our minds and our body’s reaction to thinking which can create unhelpful behaviours and (in)action. In the workplace, this can result in a reluctance to engage in potentially difficult EEDI conversations due to (misguided) internal dialogue and the belief that they will go wrong in some way. However, research has found that assuming the worst will happen is a misconception5 that creates an unnecessary barrier to curious and/or challenging communication.

Planning your conversation can help it to be more inclusive and successful:

  • Consider how you will begin the conversation – this is often the most difficult part, especially if trying to address people’s perceptions, attitudes or behaviours. Checking that the person is happy to engage can be helpful in appearing friendly rather than confrontational
  • Treat the conversation as a partnership – work together with the other person, with both of you taking ownership for the conversation and the outcome
  • Practice active listening – no interrupting, pay attention, acknowledge statements, summarise back and address harmful behaviours using the widely endorsed Situation-Behaviour-Impact model.
2. Be specific

For a variety of reasons, there can be a preference to be cautious and vague in our use of language, as opposed to bold, transparent and specific. Examples of this include the use of ‘discrimination’, ‘underrepresentation’ or ‘hard to reach’ as opposed to explicitly saying ‘racism’, ‘structural racism’ or ‘institutional racism’.

We should not be afraid to refer to racism if this is what is meant or occurring; the same applies to naming ableism, homophobia, transphobia and other structural, institutional and interpersonal forms of discrimination and oppression. When these terms are referred to in writing, definitions should be included to ensure clarity and contribute to the development and use of shared language across the organisation.  Where there is clear information to evidence an issue, or at least to trigger further exploration, data should be provided to help with communication and understanding of the issue.

3. Think beyond protected characteristics

Sometimes employers focus on the protected characteristics, rather than other backgrounds and experiences that experience social exclusion, such as socio-economic background (typically self-defined as class), immigration status, care experience, body weight etc.  Thinking about diversity solely in terms of the protected characteristics can focus on labels and generalisations, which limits inclusion. 

Inclusive language refers to the way in which everyone is seen, respected and included in the language and communication we use. This extends to beyond the protected characteristics. When considering opportunities to be more inclusive in your use of language, it is important to think about individuals and to  consider other backgrounds and identities and the way in which they intersect.

4. “There are no single-issue struggles, because we do not live single issue lives"

These words from Audre Lorde, self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, capture the point that no individual has just one identity and, as a result, does not have a one-dimensional experience of oppression, advantage or otherwise. In fact, each of us are all the sum of multiple characteristics, backgrounds and experiences – see ‘intersectionality’ – and, where relevant, your communication should reflect this in the context of your local authority and residents.

For example, data shows that there is a lack of diversity at chief executive and chief officer levels in local government organisations7. There is a high proportion of white men at this level and, where there is gender diversity, it is white women who are represented. There is a distinct absence of black women, however, this would not be known if language about the workforce referred to the need for ‘more women’ or more ‘black people’. An accurate, intersectional description enables the focused design and embedding of targeted solutions.

5. Be mindful of stereotypes and inaccuracies

As a general approach, inclusive language avoids stereotyping and making general statements about groups that share a characteristic or aspect of identity. Grouping individuals leads to inaccuracies, assumptions and experiences of exclusion, even if the grouping is seemingly positive and ‘harmless’. Stereotypes can appear in many forms, including as microaggressions within the workplace. Not all individuals belonging to a group are the same and it is important to challenge our thoughts and beliefs about different groups to enable conversations about people to be inclusive, respectful and accurate. 

6. Collaborate and agree on the words that work in your organisation

Ensuring language is inclusive can be achieved in several ways. For example, increasingly, there are examples of public sector organisations co-producing an approach to gender inclusive language. This includes award-winning work by Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust that has broadened the language it uses to support midwives providing care for trans and non-binary people who are giving birth without excluding the language of women or motherhood. Through this gender-additive approach, the Trust seeks to ensure all genders are represented and included in language and supported by its services. Examples of its use of gender-additive inclusive language include ‘pregnant women and people’, ‘breastfeeding and chest feeding’ and ‘mothers and birthing parents’.

Alternative gender inclusive approaches have also been implemented elsewhere in the public sector. This includes the adoption of gender-neutral language across several local authorities such as Southend on Sea, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Pool Council and Gloucestershire County Council. Finding out what is right for your context should be done collaboratively with staff and stakeholders. Your selected approach may not have the support of everyone; however, you should engage in a process that enables meaningful and shared input from a diverse group (including those with ‘lived experience’ where possible), followed by a clear outcome for staff to understand what is expected and accepted and clear points of review.

7. Be aware of sensitivities surrounding reclaimed language

“Reclamation is the phenomenon of an oppressed group repurposing language to its own ends… taking back control by targets of words used to attack them.”

Reclamation is described as one of a broader set of acts done with words to redistribute power. Research has found that self-labelling with slurs results in positive effects for oppressed groups and individuals as well as those observing. 

Despite the positive impact, language that is used by people who share an aspect of identity or belong to a shared group may not be appropriate for use by those who do not. A group or person may feel comfortable using a term that was once derogatory or offensive, however, the term may remain unacceptable for use by individuals who do not share the identity or belong to the group. You should ask individuals for feedback on terminology and respect their wishes, without judgement.

In addition, there are materials in circulation that include exclusionary, outdated language. If referring to such materials, ‘[sic]’ can be included after copied or quoted text to demonstrate that the language is taken directly from its original text and is unacceptable.

8. Consider the post-COVID-19 context

The COVID-19 pandemic saw new technology and ways of working introduced that resulted in more remote working in many local authorities. This adjustment in working practices can make curious, respectful and organic conversations on EEDI more challenging and increase the fear of misunderstanding and miscommunication that can lead to conflict and impact the quality of relationships among staff.

Consider the impact of hybrid and remote working on team dynamics and communication. Many of the informal ways that staff and managers used to make connections and learn about each other are no longer available or appropriate. Organisations must find ways to replace this with virtual opportunities to maintain conditions for inclusive language.

 

Equality, diversity and inclusion language glossary

 

Sex, gender and gender identity

We encourage…

  • understanding the difference between sex (biological sex, assigned at birth based on attributes such as anatomy, chromosomes and hormones), gender (expectations from society about behaviours, characteristics and thoughts) and gender identity (an individual’s sense of gender such as man, woman, non-binary, trans and gender fluid)
  • using gender neutral or additive terms or pronouns (people, workforce/staff, they/them), especially when the gender of a person is not known or relevant
  • using the correct pronouns when required or appropriate
  • in the case of pregnancy, maternity and parenting, remembering that trans and non-binary people also experience pregnancy and give birth.

Positive language

LGBTQI+
Heterosexual
Cis(gender)/trans(gender)
Genderfluid
Sex reassignment surgery
Transitioning
A pregnant person
Birthing parent

Instead of…

  • Asking for titles/salutations in forms
  • Using patronising terms that may cause offence to a particular gender, such as ‘girls’, ‘ladies’ or ‘son’
  • Using titles that imply the usual jobholder being of a particular gender
  • Using ‘LGBTQI+’ if you are only talking about gender or gender identity
  • Using ‘straight’ as the opposite of ‘LGBTQI+’ (transgender people can be any sexual orientation, including straight).

Terms to avoid 

Non-straight
Lifestyle choice
Sex change
Gender identity disorder
The transgender (labelling a group)
Transvestite

Sexual Orientation

We encourage…

  • ensuring your language reflects the diversity of relationships and families’ structures.

Positive language

LGBTQI+
Gay/lesbian/bisexual/questioning
Parents and carers
Partners
Same sex relationship/family

Instead of…

  • using ‘LGBTQI+’ if you are only talking about sexual orientation
  • including negative connotations and references in language about LGBTQI+ people.

Terms to avoid

Homosexual
Lifestyle choice
Trend
Queer (unless that is your self-identification)
Mum and Dad

Race and ethnicity 

We encourage…

  • referring to people’s race or ethnicity only if it is relevant to what is being communicated
  • being clear on the difference between race (a socially constructed categorisation based on people’s appearance – referred to as being ‘racialised’) and ethnicity (a combination of factors that make up people’s identity, including culture, language, customs and religious practices)
  • wherever possible, referring to a person’s ethnicity rather than their race 
  • being specific about a person’s race or ethnicity 
  • recognising that communities often referred to as ‘minorities’ are minoritised by structures and institutions in society
  • using the language preferred by those you are talking to and/or about.

Positive language

Black and minoritised communities/black and global majority communities/global majority communities
Communities experiencing racial inequalities/marginalised/minoritised communities
Mixed heritage/people of x heritage

Nationality

When referring to specific ethnicities:

  • aggregated examples – such as black African, black Caribbean, Southeast Asian, East Asian, Roma/Romany, mixed black and white heritage, white
  • disaggregated examples – such as South Asian Indian, East Asian Chinese, Black African Nigerian, Black Caribbean Jamaican, Mixed heritage white British and Irish Traveller

Instead of…

  • positioning white, whiteness and eurocentrism as the norm/baseline in communication
  • conflating race and ethnicity
  • othering and grouping people due to their racial or ethnic background.

Terms to avoid

BAME
Caucasian
Diverse/ethnically diverse/multicultural
Minority
Oriental
Coloured (although some communities may self-describe using this term)
Half-caste
Foreign people

Immigration and refugees 

We encourage…

  • finding out what terms people would like to be used to describe them, for some their immigration status is not an aspect of their identity 
  • using the term ‘migrants’ when describing a group
  • being clear on the difference between the terms, ‘refugee’ (someone who has been granted this status by the Home Office) and ‘asylum seeker’ (someone applying for refugee status). Refugee can be used to describe both groups of people
  • being careful using the term ‘undocumented’. This applies to those who have entered the country without documentation or overstayed their visas. Unless the term is relevant to a person’s circumstance or experience, for example they have been trafficked, then they should be referred to as ‘refugee’ or ‘migrant’ – whichever is accurate
  • being clear that the Equality Act 2020 states that a person cannot be discriminated against because of their nationality (including citizenship) under the protected characteristic of ‘race’. This includes their ethnic or national origins which may not be the same as their current nationality.

Positive language

Migrant
Refugee
Foreign nationals
Safe/irregular routes
Asylum seekers/people seeking asylum

Instead of…

  • using the term ‘migrants’ when describing people escaping persecution or war.

Terms to avoid

Alien
Economic migrant
Expat
Illegal/legal
Second generation

Disability, neurodiversity and health 

We encourage…

  • recognising the things in society that disable people and referring to disabilities in this way when talking about them (social model of disability)
  • being specific and avoiding generalisations where possible when talking about disability
  • using strengths-based language that focuses on what a person can do, rather than societal limitations
  • asking people about their preferred terminology as there will be different opinions
  • referring to a condition as an ‘impairment’ as opposed to a person having one
  • remembering that some health conditions and disabilities are invisible

Positive language

Disabled people/non-disabled people
Blind/legally blind
Visually impaired/partially sighted 
Limited vision
Non-visible disability
Wheelchair user
Deaf (capital D for people who identify with the community) or hard of hearing
Autistic people
Condition/impairment/disability
Neurodivergent/neurodiverse
Neurotypical
Autistic person
Living with…
Long-term health conditions
Underlying health conditions

Instead of…

  • using terms that equate people with their ability or disability, such as ‘schizophrenic’
  • trivialising a person’s disability, health condition or neurodivergence, such as ‘I am so OCD’
  • using person first language if a person has not described themselves in that way, except when it is appropriate to describe a group of individuals
  • making assumptions about what people can and can’t do
  • using hero terminology such as ‘fighting’ or ‘battling’ unless this is the preference of an individual
  • language that is ableist and contributes to stigma such as ‘crazy’ and ‘manic’.

Terms to avoid

The disabled
Handicapped/crippled
Confined to…
Suffers from… /victim of… /afflicted by…
Retarded 
Able bodied/normal
Wheelchair bound
Physically or mentally challenged
Differently abled
Challenged/special

Socio-economic 

We encourage…

  • recognising the structural and institutional factors that result in people’s experience of poverty and disadvantage
  • referring to facts rather than perceptions or assumptions.

Positive language

Key worker
Low income
Low paid worker
People experiencing disadvantage
People experiencing poverty
Structural inequality/poverty
People experiencing homelessness

Instead of…

  • language that reinforces stereotypes 
  • deficit based language that implies individual blame for a person’s circumstances
  • mentioning a person’s employment situation or what they do for a living, unless relevant to the context
  • referring to those experiencing homelessness as a singular group.

Terms to avoid

Deprived neighbourhoods
Disadvantaged/hard to reach
In need/the needy
Left behind
Low/high socioeconomic status
Low skilled worker/labour
Destitute/the homeless/dispossessed

Laurelle Brown CF (She/Her)

Laurelle is Founder and Director of Laurelle Brown Training and Consultancy. A Youth and Community Practitioner and Inclusion Consultancy, Laurelle collaborates with cross-sector clients to develop and embed equity and inclusion across practice, leadership and systems for children and young people.