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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

From getting it right, to being REAL. A guide to inclusive communication for executives

17 January 2024 • by Heather Cairns-Lee, Alexander Fleischmann in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Being an inclusive leader involves listening, checking your assumptions – and admitting that you don’t know it all. ...

As a leader, having ascended the corporate ladder thanks to your functional expertise and ability to mobilize and engage teams, you may be used to being regarded as highly competent. But if you want to be a truly inclusive leader, it’s important to admit that you don’t know it all, especially when it comes to inclusive communication, and to role model how to listen and challenge assumptions.

The very nature of language is that it is complex, constantly evolving, and full of nuance. What’s more, people may have their own preferences when it comes to how they want to be addressed. This means that leaders need to remain open, curious, and willing to seek different perspectives. Rather than shutting down a conversation because you are afraid of saying the wrong thing, your role is to open the discussion.

Like any cultural change, a broad commitment to creating a more inclusive organization must come from the top. Leading organizations create strategies for inclusive communication through a collective process that involves a broad and diverse spectrum of stakeholders and consultation with Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

In many organizations, this often results in a comprehensive DE&I handbook for inclusive communication. While this is undoubtedly a useful toolkit and ensures consistency in both internal and external communications, it can sometimes be perceived as ‘too much’. As one DE&I expert in our scoping study commented: “The pitfall with inclusive language is that people see our handbook and they get scared talking about DE&I at all, as it can easily look overwhelming and difficult.”

The result is that when people hear non-inclusive language, they often choose to do nothing for fear of saying the wrong thing or getting involved in a challenging situation. Rather than avoiding discomfort, we suggest leaders use a four-step process to support conversations about the impact of language.

What to do when you hear or say something non-inclusive? Act R E A L

These steps are: Recognizing, Exploring, Acknowledging, and Learning. Although the steps follow a linear sequence in a conversation, REAL is an ongoing process of education that requires repetition, hence the circular visualization of these steps.

What to do when you hear or say something non-inclusive? Act R E A L

Based on our academic research, our scoping surveys with DE&I experts, and conversations with executives globally through our work with IMD, here are some further practical guidelines on inclusive languages and images for everyday business use.

Use people’s preferred terms

Part of being REAL is admitting that you can’t possibly know it all, especially when it comes to people’s preferred terms. When referring to individuals or groups, or to geographic regions, use the terms preferred by those you address and keep in mind that language is changing constantly. The preferred terms can be people-first language, which emerged out of the disability rights movement. This approach centers on the people and not on their characteristics, e.g., “people with disabilities”, “person with autism”, “person with diabetes”, etc. This humanizes the individual and removes labels such as “disabled”, “autistic”, etc. Similarly, the use of “people of color” puts people first.

For limited partners, it's essential to focus on the human aspect when conducting due diligence on a specific VC fund
“Inclusive leaders will solicit opinions from those different from themselves to ensure that their pre-existing assumptions and stereotypes don’t prevail.”

Although seemingly contradictory, there are also advocates for an identity-first language. Identity-first approaches are rooted in the idea that the designated term is part of the individual’s identity that they can be proud of and therefore puts the term first, e.g., “autistic person”. These opposing approaches highlight the complexity of using inclusive communication, as what is deemed inclusive for some is not accepted by others.

It’s also important to recognize that terms may vary according to geography. When writing a text for a global audience, consider listing several variants or indicate that your description might not be exhaustive. When in doubt, ask the source and enquire how people in your organization like to describe themselves. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are particularly useful sources for clarification.

Check automatic associations

It is normal for humans to make mental shortcuts. This is how the brain makes sense of the world, navigates social situations, deals with information overload, makes efficient decisions, and conserves energy. However, these mental shortcuts lead to prioritizing familiar patterns as a basis for judgments, which leads to cognitive biases.

Inclusive language is a deliberate practice to check our assumptions and stereotypes about gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, ability, and other dimensions of diversity. For instance, heterosexuals may automatically ask a new male colleague about his “wife”. A more inclusive practice would be to enquire about their “partner”.

Example: Checking automatic associations

You have a meeting with a client who is running late. On arrival, she says, “I’m sorry, my assistant told me to leave earlier because of the heavy traffic but I just couldn’t make it!”

Without thinking, you respond, “Oh, no worries, but she was right, the traffic is really bad!”

Why assume that the assistant is a woman and refer to them as “she”?

This is an example of the automatic association of the word assistant with women who have traditionally occupied these support roles.

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Learn about the historical association of language and be open to learning from others

All words come with a history, but the history of some words is rooted in sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and the like. Inclusive leaders are curious about the origins and associations of words and listen attentively to broaden their understanding of language.

For example, the term ‘Oriental’ was widely used between the 18th and 20th centuries by the West to refer to people or cultures from Eastern regions including Asia and the Middle East. Due to the association of the term with the colonial period and the West’s sense of superiority, it is now considered outdated and Eurocentric as it lumps together diverse and distinct cultures, thus diminishing the individuals and cultures involved.

Another common example is to associate the term ‘lame’ with something inadequate or unsatisfactory. The term originated in the physical disability of having difficulty walking, but over time it has become an adjective to describe something inferior or negative. This association can stigmatize those with physical disabilities and perpetuate stereotypes about disability. Further examples are provided here in our Inclusive Language and Images white paper.

Set up a sounding board

Inclusive leaders will solicit opinions from those different from themselves to ensure that their pre-existing assumptions and stereotypes don’t prevail. One way to do this is to set up a sounding board consisting of people across your organization from all walks of life, to get a broad array of opinions on language or image use. This engagement encourages different perspectives and helps make sure that people don’t resort to the safety option of “default” stock imagery or language that often depicts people from under-represented groups in a stereotypical way.

Role model by admitting mistakes

If you use exclusionary language, acknowledge that you made a mistake and recognize that your remark might have offended, then rephrase using a more inclusive alternative. Fundamentally, leaders are role models. So, if people see their leaders openly acknowledging their errors and being willing to learn, they may be more open to sharing why they find certain terms exclusionary, harmful, or diminishing. The benefits are clear to all – cultures of belonging and greater commitment to inclusivity through ongoing education that is essential as society, organizations, and language evolve.

This article is based on the white paper Inclusive Language and Images by IMD in collaboration with EqualVoice.



Heather Cairns-Lee

Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication

Heather Cairns-Lee is Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication at IMD. She is a member of IMD’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Council and an experienced executive coach. She works to develop reflective and responsible leaders and caring inclusive cultures in organizations and society.



Alexander Fleischmann

Alexander Fleischmann

Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Research Affiliate

Alexander received his PhD in organization studies from WU Vienna University of Economics and Business researching diversity in alternative organizations. His research focuses on inclusion and how it is measured, inclusive language and images, ableism and LGBTQ+ at work as well as possibilities to organize solidarity. His work has appeared in, amongst others, Organization; Work, Employment and Society; Journal of Management and Organization and Gender in Management: An International Journal.

Inclusive Leadership

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Inclusive Leadership


Lead with empathy, intention and purpose.


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