The language we use is a powerful tool to improve employee belonging. The average person speaks 13,500 words daily. If used intentionally, that is 13,500 opportunities for positive impact, influence, connection, education and relationships. If used incorrectly, that is 13,500 chances for conflict, distrust and harm.
The importance of words is taught to children at a young age. As a child, If I used a word that I did not understand, my parents directed me to the dictionary to research the word and come back with better ways to use it, or an understanding of why I should not use the word. We see this importance placed on words for children through spelling bees, lines for discipline and written apologies after conflict.
In adulthood, the line between appropriate and inappropriate language is not as clear. Hurtful words are often supported by arguments of opinion, free speech, and cultural differences. Workplaces are unique environments where employers have the power to set expectations about language is not acceptable at work, and language that is encouraged.
Setting language expectations does not have to be an uncomfortable or a limiting experience. Encouraging healthy language use can be culture enhancing, belonging building and a bonding experience for your entire team.
We put together some tips we use at Lunaria to use language to improve employee belonging.
1.Put language expectations in your brand book
We set a lot of language expectations at work outside of the diversity and inclusion space. We do this with titles, keywords and brand guidelines. Language used conversationally at work should be no different. Putting language expectations in your brand book normalizes the standard from practice from to culture.
At Lunaria we put two extra slides in our brand book deck:
- Words we don’t like, defines harmful language and includes a link to resources that employees can access to understand why certain language choices are harmful.
- Words we like, outlines alternative words team members can use to defined harmful language.
Team members are encouraged to reach out to myself, or other team members personally for a no judgement conversation about language choices.
2. Use positive language alternatives in every day conversations
Words used intentionally and regularly spread, fast. We all know workplaces that have sayings that seem to be used by every employee, at Lunaria our entire team always says “feelings” in all sorts of conversations. As humans we subconsciously try to adapt and match our environment from personality, humour to language use. By placing words in everyday conversations that might replace harmful words, we are giving team members alternatives, that if faced with a scenario where they might use a harmful word, they might choose to use a known alternative.
3. Give employees the tools and processes to correct harmful language use
People make mistakes, and as you set language expectations, it’s important to give space for people to adjust, and make corrections. Conversation guides help people navigate hiccups in language use, and navigate the fear of making a mistake.
As a company, it is important to create conversation guides that match how your unique employees communicate.
3. Create a space where employees are encouraged to ask questions about language choices and make a few mistakes.
It is difficult to change behavior, transitioning from using word X to Y will take time. Often people transitioning from using “guys” to “folks,” have been saying “guys” every day for most of their lives, this can be the case for many language choices.
Creating a safe space for employees to try to improve their language choices, and make honest mistakes, is vital to ensure long term buy-in and culture change.
In setting language expectations as a business owner or manager, you are creating a space where more people can thrive. Setting these expectations does not mean there won’t be spirited debates, critical feedback, or space for constructive dialogue, but it does help ensure that even difficult conversations can feel safe for all employees.