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DEI&B Terms in the Workplace: A Guide to Using Them with Care

DEI&B Terms in the Workplace: A Guide to Using Them with Care

September 20, 2023
Masai Lawson

Words carry weight, especially surrounding diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEI&B), and it is more important than ever to use DEI&B terms with thoughtful care. When it comes to speaking with people who belong to underrepresented groups in the workplace, the language we employ impacts how people feel, how they are treated, and the success of the team.

At Gannett Fleming, we know the words we choose matter. Our commitment to DEI&B includes building and nurturing a workplace culture where everyone is respected, embraced, appreciated, seen, and heard for who they are. We do this by being conscious of our language and using terms and phrases that are considerate of all people, no matter their:

  • Ages.
  • Races.
  • Gender identities.
  • Sexual orientations.
  • Disabilities.
  • Religions.
  • Ethnicities.
  • National origins.
  • Other personal characteristics.

I’ve seen firsthand and heard from our employees the impact of thoughtful and effective communication in the workplace that leads to building bridges with our colleagues, clients, and partners, instead of creating barriers.

What are Common DEI&B Terms?

People use many different DEI&B terms, and a few of the most common ones include:

  • Race: African American, Asian American, Black, Native American, and White.
  • Ethnicity: Latino, Hispanic, and Chicano.
  • Gender: cisgender, transgender, and non-binary.
  • Sexual orientation: gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer.

Beyond individual terms and phrases, there are critical discussions that take place at work and at home that also require consideration and understanding, such as:

  • Saying ”Happy Memorial Day!” The Military Veterans at Gannett Fleming Employee Resource Group (ERG) steering committee weighed in, noting that the purpose of this holiday is to pay tribute to and commemorate individuals who lost their lives while serving their country. So, while the phrase may be well-intentioned, it can be insensitive to those mourning the loss of loved ones.
  • Asking to touch a Black person’s hair. It’s not just invasive of their personal space but also rude. It could make the person feel like an object to be inspected, similar to the “inspection” enslaved people were subjected to, and it reinforces negative stereotypes about Black hair.
  • Flippantly referring to parental leave as an extended vacation, seeing only “he” or “his” on project specifications, being told to smile more to appear less aggressive, or over-apologizing and using minimizing language. These are just a few ways words have impacted the women and allies involved in Connected Women at Gannett Fleming.

The list goes on, but the point is: language is powerful.

Why is it Important to Use DEI&B-Related Language Correctly?

At Gannett Fleming, we recognize that being mindful of DEI&B language shows respect for our peers and creates a safe, inclusive workplace. While people use several words and phrases to identify themselves, not all of them are created equal.

This is why we must avoid using inappropriate language when referencing cultural diversity, which can:

  • Be alienating, offensive, and hurtful.
  • Erode trust.
  • Undermine broader DEI&B efforts.
  • Demoralize the team, which may impact employee engagement and performance.

For example, let’s say you’re attending an in-office celebration during Hispanic Heritage Month with a colleague you’ve always believed is Hispanic. However, in speaking with your colleague during the event, you learn they are from Brazil and identify as Latino. It’s important not to assume you know how someone identifies based on physical experience or biases, as, in this case, you could have potentially offended your colleague had you referenced them incorrectly.

Stasys Fidleris, chair of the Future Generations at Gannett Fleming steering committee, offered another example, illustrating how a simple change of phrase has created a more welcoming space for employees of all ages.

“It’s important to remember that everyone’s career path is unique, and it’s not uncommon for someone to begin a new career later in life,” said Fidleris. “Choosing to use ‘early-career professionals’ rather than ‘young professionals’ has helped us focus on supporting everyone in the beginning stages of their career no matter their journey.”

How to Choose the Right Words

Selecting the appropriate language isn’t always straightforward, but it doesn’t have to be intimidating, either.

Gannett Fleming encourages the use of inclusive language, and here are some tips to help choose the right words.

Come from a place of respect and remember that not all information is your business.

For instance, asking someone, “Where are you from?” may seem innocent, but it’s a personal question that can make some people feel like an outsider that doesn’t fit in. Remember to be mindful of the context and language you use.

Daniela Kleinfeldt, secretary of the Communities of Color at Gannett Fleming steering committee, added, “As a Latina woman in a predominantly white, male-dominated industry, I’ve learned that identity is not a label assigned to us but a story we choose to share. Born in the U.S. and raised in Latin America, I proudly embrace my heritage and identify as Latina.”

Ask the person how they prefer to identify and be open to feedback.

This is the best way to guarantee you are using the correct term that is not offensive. For instance, inquiring about what pronouns someone uses is a way to ensure you don’t misgender them, which can be hurtful and invalidating. Though it may seem like a small act of respect, it makes a significant difference.

Do your research and don’t always rely on the underrepresented group to educate you.

Many resources are available to increase your knowledge of cultural diversity terms, like the Diversity Style Guide or The University of Texas at Austin’s “Ethnicity, Place of Origin, and Race” guidelines.

Honor the person’s self-identification even if you don’t understand why they use a particular term.

Some people may view the word “queer” as offensive, as historically and still to this day, it can be utilized in a derogatory way. However, some in the LGBTQ+ community have reclaimed the term, with many people choosing to identify as queer, such as our own Jess Weron, a member of the LGBTQ+ at Gannett Fleming steering committee.

“To me, the term ‘queer’ encompasses all identities within the LGBTQ+ community,” said Weron. “I prefer to identify as queer because it is less restrictive and more liberating, and even more so because we’ve reclaimed a word that can be used as a hateful term. I feel it allows for more fluidity and represents greater openness to partners of all identities.”

If unsure, err on the side of caution and use a more general, neutral term.

This includes terms like Latinx, LGBTQ+, or the pronoun “they.”

“We all know the benefit of a supportive word or the damage an insulting word can do,” added Joelle Shea, chair of the Connected Women steering committee. “By being mindful of what we are saying, we can build meaningful relationships and continue to change the culture for the better. And by being vulnerable and proactively asking a colleague or friend about language choice or apologizing if you think you missed the mark, you can demonstrate empathy and build deep trust.”

Building relationships and trust with your peers is of benefit to both the individual and the team. Research shows that inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time, and according to another study, such teams bring in 1.4 times higher revenues. Simply put, when people feel and are included, it makes a difference in their personal and professional lives.

Interested in Joining our Inclusive Team?

Do you want to work on impactful infrastructure projects while part of a collaborative, inclusive team? Apply to Gannett Fleming’s open roles and sign up for our Talent Community!

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Masai Lawson
Senior Manager, Talent Acquisition & Inclusion
370 246 Linda Smith
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