Words at work: It’s time to rethink how we speak to our colleagues

Jemma Diamond
By Jemma Diamond | 28 June 2022
Jemma Diamond

Language is a key factor in fostering a more diverse and inclusive workplace. So what steps can you take to identify language that makes people in your business uncomfortable and change it? Hatched’s Jemma Diamond explains how to undo unconscious learned behaviour.

Language has enormous power in all areas of life, not just in professional environments.

The words you use can make or break someone and as awareness of mental health increases, so too should our use of language.

Written communication has become particularly important in the last couple of years. With more of us working from home or in a hybrid way, it’s all too easy to misinterpret emails or communications shared on messaging platforms such as Teams or Slack.

Regardless of whether you’re communicating in person or online, there are words we may consider to be fine that can make others feel uncomfortable. Often we’re unaware of the effect of our words because they are part of unconscious learned behaviours. Which makes the habit all the harder to break.

To address this challenge at Hatched, our internal Belongings & Connections team introduced Words At Work. The initiative saw us survey the entire business about words they feel are hurtful or inappropriate.

As well as asking people which words cause harm, we also asked them to explain why these words have that effect. It’s one thing to ask people not to say something and another to explain how it makes others feel. We’ve found explaining the ‘why’ can be one of the most valuable tools in unlearning those ingrained behaviours.

The purpose of the Belongings & Connections team is to advocate for inclusiveness and this exercise has reinforced our stance by identifying slang words that refer to nationalities or disabilities, however acceptable they may be to some people. 

The reality is that no one is immune to the words we use at work. It’s important to think before you speak. Take a moment to consider, how will my words affect others, regardless of your own inherent beliefs.

Before you mention the PC police, this isn’t to say you can't have fun and make jokes at work. At Hatched, we love a good laugh and taking the piss out of each other.

And that’s largely why we developed this approach to addressing the situation. Being pulled up for saying something inappropriate can also make people feel uncomfortable and when that person is more senior than you within the organisation, it can be difficult to speak up.

Now, no matter where Hatched staff sit on the hierarchy, if someone uses a word that doesn’t sit well with others, we can simply refer to the document.

Just as what’s considered acceptable language will differ from one person to the next, it is the same for organisations. The culture will dictate where the line is.

This can then extend outwards from internal to external communication. It’s one thing to include emojis in your emails to colleagues but a more professional use of language is naturally expected when communicating with others outside the organisation. Including a please and a thank you can go a long way and it’s safe to assume words that make people within your organisation uncomfortable are best to be avoided when speaking to people beyond your office. And, of course, it never hurts to proofread before you hit send to check your language and tone.

By making Words At Works an open document that can be added to over time, the more information we gather, the better we will be at determining where the line is for us.

You’re welcome to use this approach or to find a system that works for your organisation. Together we can change the culture of the entire industry. Wouldn’t that be something?

Jemma Diamond is a Junior Media Executive at Hatched.

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