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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Inclusive communication: how to overcome the fear of saying the wrong thing

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

To create a truly inclusive culture, be conscious of how language and imagery are being used in your organization and provide guidance to help employees overcome their fear of getting things wrong....

In an increasingly polarized age, there is growing awareness of how language can include or exclude others. Even in the modern business world, terms such as chairman, manpower, and blacklisted can amplify biases and shape the way we think and act. To create an organizational culture where diverse individuals from all walks of life can truly thrive, it is essential to reflect on the language and imagery you use every day.

In an increasingly polarized age, there is growing awareness of how language can include or exclude others. Even in the modern business world, terms such as chairman, manpower, and blacklisted can amplify biases and shape the way we think and act. To create an organizational culture where diverse individuals from all walks of life can truly thrive, it is essential to reflect on the language and imagery you use every day.

In our white paper on inclusive language and imagery, we define inclusive communication as a deliberate choice of words and images that supports an inclusive environment where everyone feels that they belong and can participate in an environment that limits bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.

Specifically, inclusive communication avoids terms and images that are harmful to people from underrepresented groups to prevent perpetuating inequality in everyday situations. Instead, it embraces terms and images that convey openness to as many facets of difference as possible. This practice, which is even more essential in contentious times, shapes organizational culture by acknowledging and respecting the diversity of society, employees, and customers.

A contentious topic

While social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have pushed the need for inclusive societies up the corporate agenda in recent years, they have also increased concern about how to talk about difficult issues. This is reflected in our scoping survey of 70 executives from Europe and South America which found many people remain fearful of slipping up. As one vice president put it: “It is hard to follow it all, not to make mistakes, and keep people happy.”

Indeed, a 2021 study from the UK claims that between 16% and 30% of people actively avoid talking about issues such as gender, religion, sexuality, race, or disability for fear of saying the wrong thing. Similarly, a report from the Dialogue Project (2020) conducted with 5,000 citizens in India, the US, Brazil, Germany, and the UK, shows that engaging in respectful dialogue with those who hold different perspectives, especially on topics of politics, race, sexual orientation, immigration, and religion, is rare and problematic. This reduces the ability to learn from others, does little to bridge differences, and can create echo chambers in which people are surrounded by others who are aligned with their views.

Furthermore, Nike Moehle, Vice President of Communications, Sustainability, and DE&I at Sunrise, the largest private telecommunications company in Switzerland, notes some people are growing weary of the topic.

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“While there was initially a great level of tolerance in society that underrepresented groups should have a stronger voice, we are, in my view, entering a phase where more people feel that their personal territory or habits are impacted by the related requests,” she said. Now, when asked to acknowledge specific groups, some people feel annoyed or hindered in their natural way of expressing themselves, she added.

Some credit this fatigue, annoyance, or discomfort to the so-called “woke movement” – a term that has become pejorative to disparage calls for justice. Critics claim that inclusive language and inclusive images are ideological – often forgetting that current language and images are rooted in a specific ideology that may have been taken for granted for years. However, calls for equal representation and social justice, as well as the resistance toward these calls, are a hallmark of pluralistic societies that are characterized by multiple co-existing attitudes and opinions. This puts the onus on organizations to create cultures that do not avoid discomfort but instead foster psychological safety so that all people are able to speak up to address the ambiguities and discomfort of our times without fear of retribution. So how can companies go about this?

Assume good intent rather than deliberate offense

Language is constantly evolving to reflect changes in society. It’s important to recognize that people are on a learning curve and that unintentional mistakes and misunderstandings are inevitable. This is why psychological safety is key to enabling dialogue about changing norms without fear of reprisal. Such a culture creates an environment where one can learn from mistakes and listen to perspectives different from one’s own.

“We are entering a phase where more people feel that their personal territory or habits are impacted by the related requests.”

It helps to assume good intent and that people are not deliberately offensive. It’s for this reason that we prefer the term ‘microinequities’ to ‘microaggressions’ to refer to the subtle, often unintentional, seemingly innocuous, everyday acts of othering.

Coined by Harvard University psychiatrist Chester M Pierce in the early 1970s, the term ‘microaggression’ gained popularity through psychologist Derald Wing Sue in 2010 who defined them as, “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”. Although the term was originally focused on racial inequity, today it refers to subtle everyday verbal or behavioral expressions that communicate derogatory or negative messages about individuals or groups based on aspects of their identity, appearance, or other feature from any marginalized group.

The linguistic association between the words ‘aggression’ and ‘violence’ is unfortunate, since it misleadingly portrays senders of microaggressions as intentional persecutors rather than people who may not understand the association or impact of their language. Equally, the receivers of microaggressions are perceived as victims, justified in taking offense at the inflicted “harm”. Critics argue that this leads to a ‘call-out culture’ that stifles open discourse and fosters fear, rather than curiosity, about diversity issues.

In developing an inclusive culture, organizations should view inclusive leadership and communication as trainable skills. Like muscles, these skills require nurturing, with mistakes serving as valuable learning opportunities. Companies can take advantage of special days throughout the year that recognize, celebrate, and educate about different aspects of diversity to have conversations around diversity and inclusion. Days like International Women’s Day or Pride Month are opportunities for education and for employees from under-represented groups to speak about their experiences. Shifting from a culture of fear, organizations can encourage curiosity, enabling individuals to engage constructively with differences.

Use metrics to raise awareness

Language and images have a powerful impact on our biases about working life. An analysis of mass media outlets showed that men tend to be portrayed more often in the world of work, reinforcing the association between men and work, whereas women are portrayed in the home, and when at work, often in stereotypically female occupations.

Beyond traditional media, a recent study shows that gender-stereotypical images in social media can damage women’s leadership aspirations. In textbooks, when female students see counter-stereotypical images (i.e., female scientists), their comprehension of science lessons improves. This also applies to male students who have a higher understanding of science when they see an image of a male scientist. Both perform almost equally well when they see mixed-gender images. These findings confirm the saying, “If you can see it, you can be it.”

One organization that is working to address the imbalance of male and female voices in the media is The Ringier EqualVoice initiative, which has developed an AI tool, the EqualVoice Factor, to analyze the gender visibility gap between women and men in text, images, and video content.

Sunrise used the EqualVoice Factor to measure the representation of women in their press statements and on LinkedIn. They found that just 6.66% of their press releases contained female voices, partly because their CEO is male. They are seeking to increase the representation of female experts in the media. For LinkedIn, they had a score of just 5.6% for female voices in 2021 and managed to increase this to 30% in 2022 by paying deliberate attention to the balance of representation of men and women in their posts.

While the above example only considers gender, it shows the progress that organizations can make if they start to pay more attention to their language and imagery.

Create demographic checklists and inclusive image libraries

When it comes to making your organizational imagery more inclusive, it is important to look for images that represent diversity. However, one pitfall is that people often select images containing diverse groups of people. True inclusion means that people from underrepresented groups should be depicted with agency in an actively working role and as the focus of the image.

As one female C-suite member wrote in our scoping study, “Ensure the images have diverse people in many aspects and that the images do not strengthen stereotypes, i.e., representing women always smiling, or representing people of color not doing anything in the picture while white men are busy and active ‘with something important’.”

To help employees look beyond the “default” when choosing an image, ask them to try to include various identities from the following checklist:

  • Abilities
  • Ages
  • Body types, including sizes and heights
  • Genders, including transgender and non-binary
  • Races, ethnicities, and religions

Even if a diverse group of people is present in an image, ask yourself whether certain individuals are prioritized. Does the composition reflect equity? Is anyone being tokenized? And would you want to be represented this way?

Image libraries of photos, videos, icons, and illustrations, such as INVIQA, TONL, and Nappy, exist that specialize in portraying people from all walks of life. However, even an approved library needs to be used with discernment as the context in which an image is used must be taken into account.

Organizations can also create their own approved image libraries that fit with their brand standards to support their work on inclusive communication. One example is the logistics company Swiss Post, which promotes inclusivity by featuring real people with diverse and natural characteristics encountered in everyday life. Their guidelines emphasize showcasing a mix of rural and urban settings, various age groups, and ethnicities. They actively include diversity in terms of LGBTQ+ representation, visible tattoos, bald individuals, and people with disabilities in their images.

Lastly, organizations need to strike a balance between aspiration (i.e., depicting the diversity you would like to have) and reality (what your workforce actually looks like). Don’t try to overcompensate. If most of your workforce and leadership team are white and male, putting a Black woman in every photo may give the illusion of diversity but risks being seen as a tokenistic response and could backfire.

Ideally, an honest approach to images is used – one that is backed up by sound and thorough policies and practices that aim to foster an inclusive culture where people from all walks of life can thrive – to avoid giving a wrong impression of the DE&I culture in your organization. One organization in our scoping survey aims to limit “over-representation” by using no more than 10% of underrepresented groups or ethnicities in an image above the real distribution in the workforce.

This article is based on the IMD white paper “Inclusive Language and Images” by Heather Cairns-Lee and Alexander Fleischmann. A second article will provide practical guidelines for inclusive leaders on how to create inclusive cultures. 



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.

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