An Inclusive Language Guide Isn’t the Answer

An inclusive language guide oversimplifies language and job posts, which can lead to incorrect assumptions on the part of hiring teams.

It sounds reasonable. If certain words can deter some job seekers from applying, doesn’t it make sense to have an inclusive language guide? Actually, no. 

The problem with a list of supposedly ‘good’ and ‘bad’ words is that it grossly oversimplifies language as well as job descriptions. Words aren’t inherently inclusive or exclusive. Their context within a text and within a reader’s life are just two of the many, many factors that impact their inclusiveness.


What is an inclusive language guide?

An inclusive language guide is a list of words that are supposedly ‘inclusive’ or ‘exclusive’ meant to help writers avoid exclusionary language. However, language doesn’t work that way. Other than some obvious ones (e.g., racial slurs), words aren’t inherently good or bad, inclusive or exclusive.


There are no ‘magic’ words

Just because you include certain words in your job description, that doesn’t mean your job description is inclusive. (Otherwise known as the ‘magic words effect.’) There are way too many factors in a job description and in a candidate’s decision-making process for that to be true.

Sure, some words or phrases (such as racial slurs) have no business being in a job post. But other than these obvious ones, you can’t simply point to one word or another as the reason a job seeker did or didn’t fill out an application. Data science that purports to isolate and measure the impact of individual words simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Lots of things impact job post effectiveness. Including diversity statements can increase your job posts’ inclusiveness in the eyes of job seekers. Keeping your job posts to an appropriate length and widely disseminating them on the right job boards can increase applications from qualified candidates. And the titles you choose for your jobs can actually make or break the entire process. None of those factors has solely to do with word choice. 


Where word choice gets nuanced

An inclusive language guide can’t address the various nuances of language. Here’s a few examples of where a guide may run into problems.

Gendered pronouns

Gendered pronouns aren’t inherently bad (e.g., ‘Our founder started her company in 2006…’). They’re only bad when used to describe a hypothetical applicant (e.g., ‘The account executive will pursue potential customers in his territory…’).

Contexts

Context is key. The word ‘competitive’ isn’t bad when explaining what gives your company ‘a competitive advantage.’ It is bad if you’re asking for applicants with ‘competitive spirit.’

Sentiments

The sentiment matters, not the words used to convey it. Removing the word ‘competitive’ doesn’t help if you then go on to convey the same sentiment with another word or phrase. If your requirements include a ‘drive to win’ or ‘desire to outshine your peers,’ you’re still encoding the idea of competitiveness without using the word. 

Idioms

Most of us take idioms for granted as harmless figures of speech, but they can create unnecessary confusion for job seekers. Consider ‘go the extra mile’ versus ‘last-mile delivery.’ People familiar with both of these idioms wouldn’t confuse them for each other. But if you’re relatively new to an industry where ‘last-mile’ is a meaningful concept or your first language isn’t English, you might. 

Requirements

A requirement for proficiency in ‘written and spoken English’ is not in itself problematic and is, in fact, common in English-dominant markets. But that kind of requirement can deter job seekers who communicate primarily through signed languages. (Job seekers who, in fact, could perform the job with the aid of certain technologies or interpreters.) This doesn’t make ‘speak’ a bad word.



An inclusive language guide isn’t the answer

The fact is, individual words won’t make or break a job post’s appeal to certain populations (again, other than obvious examples). There are way too many other factors in play. That’s why it’s so important to treat job descriptions as holistic documents ─ many parts coming together to create a whole. And to use job description software that analyzes both what you say (content) and how you say it (language).  

An inclusive language guide oversimplifies things and can lead to incorrect assumptions. It can lead to well-meaning hiring team members thinking they’re creating inclusive job posts when they aren’t. Which does absolutely nothing for your hiring efforts, let alone your diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

Nora Morikawa

Nora Morikawa

Linguist

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