Language relates to the risk of not understanding the meaning and implications of certain words, or using inaccurate/offensive language 

Staff uncertainty

Staff do not know or use the accepted words, capitalisations, and grammar when writing or talking about ethnicity, sexuality, disabilities, gender identities or religions. This can appear careless, disrespectful or insensitive, or indicate out-of-date information on inclusion practice. This creates an immediate cognitive distance between those speaking and those who are being communicated to or about. The result is the breakdown of communication or the erosion of trust.

Mitigations for risk

There is no universally right language – different words mean different things to different people, but you can do the following:

  • Regularly check in with participants on how they self-identify and acknowledge that identity isn’t static and peoples preferences can change.
  • Provide access both online and in print copies of the Government style guide on ethnicity, the Government style guide on disability, and the Stonewall glossary of terms.
  • Offer 1 to 1 support when discussions can take place and raise awareness with trained staff e.g. HR representatives, Inclusion Champions, Mental Health First Aiders, counsellors or mentors.
  • Regularly review the defined terms to match societal changes and movements.

Barriers created by language

The language used creates barriers, which adds tension to exchanges between people. Examples can include when there is no direct translation outside of English, when English is used as a second language, or when nuances are applied to language such as active vs passive language (the terms ‘slave’ vs ‘enslaved’, for example).

Mitigations for risk

  • Clearly acknowledge the issues with direct translation and nuance, and make staff aware on this risk.
  • Regularly review the defined terms to match societal changes and movements, including the nuances of applied language.
  • Refer to resources that may provide nuanced or independent translation.

Reclaimed language

The aim to address or condemn historic uses of offensive language in archival collections conflicts with how affected communities have reclaimed offensive words in modern times. Words can be reclaimed by communities and used for advocacy, creating a duality of usage, with both the ability to offend and also empower. Staff and participants lack confidence in words they can and can’t use. Terms are potentially perceived as offensive without the context of reclamation and this receives negative feedback as a result.

Mitigations for risk

  • Regularly review the defined terms to match societal changes and movements.
  • Clearly contextualise when/if the language being used is co-produced with communities as a reclaimed term.
  • Prepare statements on inclusivity, such as ‘the use of the word then and now was discriminatory. We recognise though the right for communities to reclaim and re-use words for their own advocacy.’
  • Create a procedure to record the last time that material was reviewed, allowing for a clear assessment of the time that has passed and any associated societal change. Refresh the record after each use.

Acronyms and euphemisms

Acronyms or euphemisms can obscure or omit identities. Amalgamations and euphemisms can be used to conflate diverse experiences and can make meanings and measurements unclear. A prominent example is the acronym ‘BAME’, standing for ‘Black Asian Minority Ethnic’, which combines the experiences of very diverse communities, from Black African to Gypsy Roma, and obscures the nuances and differences in experiences.

Mitigations for risk

  • Provide clarity to staff and stakeholders on the use of acronyms and acknowledge that they are not inherently safe to use. Always define acronyms used and do not assume knowledge of their meaning.
  • Be specific when communicating about and with specific communities, and discuss identities only when it is contextually relevant.
  • Remove the use of acronyms to actively support service users in self-identifying in communication exchanges.

Use of contested or upsetting language

Contested, upsetting, or prejudicial language is used when communicating, and this divisive language creates access barriers.

Mitigations for risk

  • Put procedures in place to raise concern to line managers or to nominated officers who have been appointed to advise on questions of inclusion e.g. HR representatives, Inclusion Champions, Mental Health First Aiders, counsellors or mentors. Establish robust complaints procedures to help resolve disputes, including providing access to mediators.
  • Provide training and support on the contents of the Equalities Act 2010 and how this is applied to all roles. Reiterate the Public Sector Equalities Duty and re-run training at regular intervals in line with societal change or movements.
  • Take disciplinary action against any employee who is found to have committed an act of unlawful discrimination.
  • Create security procedures for physical and online spaces to remove and ban abusive people to protect others. Raise awareness of the procedures to report hate crimes.