Language and representation matter: the importance of inclusivity in L&D

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22 April 2021
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

Language and representation matter

Workplace training is meant to bolster and develop your employees, but it’s not going to be effective if there are people who feel excluded or overlooked by your programmes. Many organisations talk about diversity and inclusion, but they’re really just using buzzwords. In a global survey, 75% of organisations said ‘diversity’ is a stated value or priority area for them, however a third of employees still view diversity as a barrier to their professional progression.1 Actions speak much louder than words, and it’s an issue which deserves increased focus and attention.

We’ve written numerous articles before about how Learning and Development can be a driving force behind organisational change, and in this case there’s plenty that your training can do to turn your organisation into a more inclusive and representative place.

By understanding how to create more diverse training experiences, you can start transforming the atmosphere in your workplace to give more of a voice to those so often marginalised. It opens discussions and creates an equal space. Someone’s gender, sexuality, race or religion makes no difference to their capabilities at work, and so L&D should reflect and respect your entire workforce and give them the recognition they deserve.


Legal obligations

Of course, inclusivity goes beyond simply making employees feel comfortable. Organisations have a legal responsibility too.

In the United States, 61% of workers report either personally experiencing or witnessing workplace discrimination. Of those people, 45% say there has been discrimination based on age, 42% due to either race or gender, and 33% based on sexual orientation.2

In UK law, there are nine protected characteristics which employers are not allowed to discriminate against. These are: age, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, gender reassignment, being married or in a civil partnership, and being pregnant or on maternity leave.3 This is just the list in the UK – around the world, each country and culture will have their own set of protected characteristics and policies towards discrimination. However, these work as a good starting point and cover a lot of major issues experienced in modern workplaces.


Inclusivity and Representation

A recent survey discovered that 54% of people of mixed ethnicity and 49% of black employees in the UK would not apply for a job at a company without an inclusive culture. Similarly, while 31% of employees who are white said they would not apply for a job that lacked diversity among its workforce, this rises to 61% amongst people who are black.4

This highlights how much of a difference it makes when people feel represented and reflected in the wider workforce. A lack of diversity will tend to skew in favour of people who are white, which has been shown to make people from black and other ethnic minority groups feel less included. By making a more conscious effort to increase both diversity and inclusivity, organisations can make their employees happier and more relaxed, as well as inspiring a wider pool of talent to join.

Furthermore, organisations should think about who gets access to what type of training. In many areas, women and minority groups are often overlooked or disadvantaged when it comes to being chosen for training. If you make programmes open to a more diverse selection, you give more people opportunities to develop and further their careers. This will have the long-term effect of putting more people from those backgrounds in leadership roles, which will begin changing what we expect leaders to look like.

Your L&D programmes and materials should reflect, embrace and celebrate this diversity. The images and language you use will send the message that you welcome the whole spectrum of people and perspectives. Furthermore, hiring trainers from a range of backgrounds will also create more opportunities for employees to engage.


Creating a learning environment for all

L&D is the perfect platform to teach about inclusivity, unconscious bias and more (in fact, we have many programmes dedicated to these exact topics). These learning opportunities create a space for employees to talk about issues they’ve been facing that others may not be aware of. They’re also helpful for providing a common vocabulary and recognising the full range of experiences within the organisation. However, talking about it isn’t enough. L&D needs to model these positive actions and lead from the front.

We’ve previously written about the mistakes of assuming everyone learns in the same way, and it’s equally important not to assume people can all relate to the same experiences. Fostering a diverse workforce means recognising and welcoming people from different backgrounds, which also means they may not understand every example, story or idiom you use. Idioms are very culturally specific phrases, such as when you tell a group that something is ‘awfully good,’ a British audience knows that means it’s good, but to those without this cultural knowledge the word ‘awfully’ may tell a different story. Similarly, telling participants not to ‘beat around the bush’ or ‘killing two birds with one stone’ may confuse them.

More than anything else, the important thing is to listen. From feedback surveys after each session to informal conversations, the best people to tell you how to make it more accessible and inclusive are the participants themselves. Create a safe space for them to make suggestions, and don’t be afraid of making changes to readdress any shortcomings you uncover.


Making training accessible

In America, 18% of people with a disability are in employment.5 In the UK, it’s 53%, making up 20% of the total working population.6 Your training should be designed to be accessible to participants with disabilities. Of course, there are many types of disabilities, and it may not be practical to plan for them all. Your organisation should know which employees will require additional help, and there are some easy steps you can take to help their experience.

Consider their physical access. At the moment, most training is virtual, so think about how long you ask people to sit in one place without a break, and whether there are alternate ways for people to interact who may be unable to use a mouse, keyboard or other devices. When face-to-face training resumes, you should think about physical access to the room – such as stairs – and what activities you ask them to take part in.

You should also think about how you, or the trainer, speaks. You should always project loudly enough that everyone in the room can hear and enunciate well completing the end of each word to aid clarity, but do you need to wear a hearing loop to assist people wearing hearing aids? It has become good practice to include subtitles for any videos you use, and in some cases, you may need to bring in a sign language interpreter.

Be mindful of colours. For example, putting red and green text next to each other won’t be effective for people with that form of colour-blindness. You can either redesign your materials or help your participants by explaining things on screen that would otherwise require being able to recognise these things. Blind participants will similarly have trouble if anything relies entirely on viewing a picture, video or reading text.

In general, these are all small changes but make a huge impact. It lets people with disabilities get involved and feel included. No one should be limited in their personal development for something with such a simple solution.


Your use of language

Language is a powerful tool. In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, ‘1984’, the ruling party created ‘Newspeak’ – a new version of English, in which they stripped away any words that could be used to incite any kind of rebellion or discontent. Without the words to express their unhappiness, it made it hard to even have such thoughts.

In the same way, the constant evolution and expansion of language helps society to move forward and understand a wider range of perspectives, becoming more open and inclusive. From the way materials are written, to the way trainers speak to their participants, you should be mindful of the words used. What you do and don’t say in your L&D sessions directly affects how your employees will think about things in the future.

Person-first language is a good starting point. For example, calling someone a ‘person of colour’ or a ‘person with a disability’ (rather than a ‘disabled person’) helps remind us all that the person exists before their other characteristics, and they shouldn’t be entirely defined by this one thing.

It’s also important not to make any assumptions when talking to people. One way this occurs in a conversation is asking someone you’ve just met about their ‘husband’ or ‘wife.’ Instead, using a more neutral phrase like ‘partner’ or ‘spouse,’ until you know more, gets the same point across but doesn’t assume anyone’s gender or status.

Neutral phrases also help to create a more inclusive atmosphere. Something like ‘Hi guys,’ has been used to address mixed groups over recent years, but it does carry an inherent gender bias. A more neutral phrase like ‘Hi everyone,’ avoids leaving anyone out. This is something to consider, especially at the beginning of a session, when you don’t want to start with people already feeling excluded.

Overall, there are a lot of small steps you can take to make a massive impact within your L&D sessions. From making sure your materials are accessible and stand as a true reflection of your workers, to being mindful of the language you use, you can create a more open and inclusive atmosphere for your employees.


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1 PwC (2020) Global diversity & inclusion survey

2 Statista (2019) How common is workplace discrimination?

3 UK Government (2010) UK Equality Act 2010

4 Glassdoor (2020) UK diversity & inclusion workplace survey

5 US Department of Labor (2021) Persons with a disability: labor force characteristics - 2020

6 UK Parliament (2021) Disabled people in employment