Editor’s note: Donald Thompson, a serial entrepreneur and investor, writes an exclusive column about leadership, equality, entrepreneurship and management. His posts are published on Wednesdays.


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – No one can do their best in a place where they don’t feel welcome, respected and consistently encouraged to contribute great work. That’s why inclusive language is a vital skill for future-focused leaders. It unlocks excellence in the workplace. 

Communicating as a leader is no easy task. You’re human, so you are bound to make mistakes, but a potential misstep can cost you big. The opposite is true as well. Improve the way you talk to people and you will see immediate results


Consider this a personal invitation from me to you. To learn best practices for inclusive leadership language, join my team tomorrow, April 21, at noon Eastern time for a free, live webinar: “The Word Choice Workshop: Inclusive Language Tips for Everyday Business.” We’ll cover the basics about how and why respectful words improve productivity, teamwork and culture. Then we’ll walk you through what we’ve learned and which terms have evolved in the last two years alone.

If you can’t spare the full hour tomorrow, sign up anyway to receive a recording of the webinar afterward, or be one of the first to order our book on the topic, available soon: The Inclusive Language Handbook: A Guide to Better Communication and Transformational Leadership.


Inclusive language is knowing how to name and respectfully talk about other people, their cultures, communities, identities, experiences and backgrounds. Employee engagement, innovation and problem-solving hinge on a sense of acceptance and belonging. By avoiding unintended slights, discriminatory terms and microaggressions, inclusive language makes people feel respected, valued and — not just invited — but expected to do great work. 

As a leader, you set the tone and example for your team, so it’s important to admit what you don’t know and to model personal growth. Think about it this way. Using respectful and inclusive language communicates that you believe anyone who is good enough to get hired at your organization also deserves to be treated like your best employee. 


In my 20+ years as a leader, I’ve made about 20,000 mistakes, most of them based on poor communication. Early in my career, I didn’t understand the impact that my word choice could have on business outcomes. But if there is one job that can teach you quickly to care about language, it’s sales. On my journey to the CEO’s chair, I’ve learned this: the words you use reflect who you are, how you see the world, and who you want to be. 

If you know me, you know I have a high tolerance for failure. I’m not afraid to fail forward, sometimes repeatedly, while I learn a new skill. Making mistakes is human after all. Mistakes are ok. Not learning from them, and not adapting to what you’ve learned? Well, that’s a problem. 

But, learning the most respectful terms for other people’s identities and backgrounds can sometimes have an unintended effect. It can make you feel defensive, embarrassed or guilty for things you didn’t know before. What’s key is to not let yourself get stuck in those feelings.  Instead, embrace the opportunity to model humility and a growth mindset. Use your personal development journey to lead by example. Acknowledge your own imperfections; admit what you don’t know; apologize for past mistakes; and continue your commitment to competitive learning

Flexibility, humility and authenticity are core competencies for future-focused leaders. Although the negative feelings that come along with learning might sting in the moment, understanding how to manage them is key to moving forward. 


  • The tech industry has a serious age problem, almost definitely rooted in bias for younger employees. If you’re subtly or overtly excluding all people over 40, you’re not only missing out on a huge talent pool of skilled candidates, you’re also inhibiting innovation and good decision-making. And, you’re breaking the law. Eliminate age-coded language (like “digital native,” “tech-savvy” and “entry-level”) from your job descriptions, and make it clear that age-related bias has no place in your organization. Throw-away phrases like “Okay, Boomer” have a big, negative impact on culture. 
  • Most tech organizations also have a gender problem. With a predominantly male workforce, it’s especially important you pay attention to – and reject – male-centric terms that exclude all other genders, like “man hours.” Instead, use genderless terms like “engineer hours” or “hours of effort.” 
  • Replace tech terms and metaphors that have non-inclusive connotations. Change “native” to “built-in;” “webmaster” to “web product owner;” “whitelist” to “safelist;” and “master/slave” with “primary/replica,” “primary/standby” or “primary/secondary.”
  • Insist on inclusive design, digital accessibility and inclusive language for users of all abilities. Instead of “vision impaired” or “hearing impaired,” say a “person who uses a screen reader”  and “a person who is Deaf or hard of hearing.”
  • Avoid using idioms, complicated terminology and jargon that can exclude people who don’t have specialized knowledge or who may not be from your same culture.


Word choice is important, but it’s also true that language goes hand-in-hand with your behavior. When you make a mistake, admit it, apologize and move on. Don’t dwell on the moment or over apologize, which just makes things more awkward and heavy. Just keep moving forward, and don’t repeat the same mistake twice. 

Remember it’s OK to share where you are in your inclusive language learning journey, and frankly, people will appreciate it when you do. Imagine the impact on trust and culture you can make just by admitting “Hey, I realized I’m not doing well with inclusive language, and I want you all to know I’m learning more so I can do better.” I guarantee you’ll find that most people are kind and supportive when they know you’re working to improve your language and leadership skills.

In the meantime, be visible, be accessible and be curious. Be the best example of what you want to see in your business, so you can set clear expectations for language and word choice at work. If there are specific ways I can be helpful to you or your organization as you dive into inclusive language learning, send me a message or connect with me on Linkedin. I’m always happy to help.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, which offers an employee-experience product suite that personalizes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through data, technology, and expert-curated content. His autobiography, Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, is available for pre-order now. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. An entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach, Donald also serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Connect with him on Linkedin or at donaldthompson.com to learn more about MicroVideos by The Diversity Movement

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