CIPD EDI Conference: inclusive language is about ‘more than just political correctness’, delegates told

Senior policy adviser explains why choosing the right words is vital for HR at professional body's annual diversity event

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HR needs to build a better understanding of the language it is using to avoid inadvertently marginalising some employees, the CIPD Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Conference has been told.

Speaking in the conference’s opening keynote today (29 November), Lutfur Ali, the CIPD’s senior policy adviser, said: “For those of us that come from a so-called marginalised or discriminated against background, those words mean significantly more to us and affect our life chances in ways you can’t possibly imagine. So it’s important to choose the appropriate words when we’re communicating.”

As HR professionals “we need to understand this language landscape”, Ali said. 

“Everybody has a different [understanding] of these definitions… so we need to evolve that common shared understanding and go back to the roots of where these words come from, and what they actually mean,” he explained.

Employers needed to ensure that they did not allow “for societal interventions that have taken place for good or adverse reasons to change what these things mean”, said Ali.

He asked the audience whether they viewed inclusive language as political correctness or being ‘woke’, and no one raised their hand. Ali told them that “if you did this poll with line managers in organisations, and I’ve done this a few times, you get at least 20 per cent of hands going up”.

“Inclusive language is about much more than political correctness,” he stressed.

Ali explained that the word ‘woke’, now often used in a derogatory way, emerged in the 1940s from the Nation of Islam, an activist movement and organisation for Black people, which “began to say people need to awaken to the condition that they were in”. 

He said: “This is a term that we define very clearly, because we need to reappropriate certain words that have been misused by people.”

There are “hundreds of thousands of ways in which we exclude people and make people feel smaller; we take away their sense of belonging in organisations”, Ali continued. 

Words have an impact, from “extreme elements where people’s lives and potential is inhibited, all the way through to one’s ability to operate effectively in the workplace”, he added.

Furthermore, Ali explained that EDI operated through “rights and responsibilities in the workplace”. “To be given certain rights in the organisation, to be able to work and be myself in the workplace… [to not] be discriminated against [and] be given fair treatment to progress in the organisation, I also have to be responsible for not being discriminatory to others,” he said.

The “power and privilege” that someone has should be better understood, he said, and then “we can have that conversation with people, enabling them to understand their power and privilege when they’re communicating and interacting”.

The CIPD’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) conference is happening today and tomorrow (30 November) in central London – it’s not too late to book your ticket for the second day