4 Words You Should Stop Using at Work–and What to Say Instead

Keeping up to date with terms that are acceptable in the workplace and ensuring your employees’ identities are respected is a vital, ongoing commitment. 

It all starts with creating an environment that allows workers from historically underrepresented backgrounds, who are often the first or only people of their background in the room, to feel they can speak up, says Pamela Culpepper, co-founder of Chicago-based culture consultancy Have Her Back. Founded in 2019, Culpepper’s 11-employee company has worked with corporate clients such as McDonald’s, LinkedIn, and United Airlines to put diversity and inclusion initiatives into action. Culpepper, 57, who previously served as global diversity and inclusion officer at PepsiCo, earlier this year also became the first Black woman on the board of Prada. 

“The hardest thing is being the first or the only,” she says. “You’re not sure you’re going to feel belonging and inclusiveness in the company culture. So we design this process where the manager and the new hire spend time early in the onboarding process getting to know each other.”

If you’re not ready to hire a consultant, Culpepper recommends creating a questionnaire to develop a more personal relationship with your longtime employees and to get to know new hires during onboarding. It should include basic identity questions, such as what pronouns an employee uses, how they’d like to be referred to (for example, “Black” versus “African American”), and more lighthearted questions that get to particular aspects of a person’s identity. For example, asking someone’s favorite meal could reveal their dietary restrictions. While it’s best to stick to benign questions, Culpepper says it’s also important to tell candidates they can always opt not to answer one. 

Once employees have strong relationships with their colleagues and managers, instruction on identity-related topics in the workplace won’t feel heavy-handed–particularly if managers collaborate with their employees on creating the rules. Culpepper recommends hosting crowdsourcing events during community celebration months, such as Pride Month, to create a vocabulary list distributed among employees. At these events, individuals from the communities being celebrated can come together to discuss terms that should be eliminated and how to replace them. “There are sure to be multiple responses as well as some conflicting ones, so dwell on what comes up the most,” Culpepper says. “These will fuel the conversation starters and teachable moments.”

While you’ll want to customize your list to what your employees want, here are some of Culpepper’s suggestions for frequently used terms to avoid and how to replace them:

1. Replace “maternity leave” with “parental leave” or “family leave”

If your company has already implemented an inclusive leave policy, this slight shift acknowledges a broader variety of family situations and eliminates the assumption that only a mother will take time off for child care. “It’s not just maternity leave and paternity leave,” says Culpepper. “It’s supporting the family with time and resources in order to create a shared space for childbearing.”

2. Replace “grandfathered” with “pre-approved”

The term “grandfathered” has roots in racist voting laws from the late 1800s. Using “pre-approved” instead when referring to a group of customers or a policy avoids the problematic reference.

3. Replace “minority” with “historically excluded”

The word “minority” is often used to define any identity that isn’t White, straight, or male. This term implies a power dynamic between the underrepresented group and the one that’s considered the “majority.”

4. Replace “You guys” with “y’all” or “folks”

Eliminating the word “guys” when referring to a group of people takes gender out of the equation, making it more inclusive. According to Culpepper, there are a variety of acceptable ways to refer to a group of people, many of them dependent on location or environment. “Y’all,” for example, tends to be a term specific to the South. What’s important, she says, is evaluating context and thinking about the term that would be most relevant in your workplace.

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