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Diversity and Cultural Awareness

Diversity in the Workplace

Diversity in the Workplace

In recent years, it has become increasingly recognized and understood that an organization’s success rests heavily upon how well it harnesses the whole array of skills and experiences of its employees.  In practice, this means how well it fosters widespread teamwork, bringing together people of very different backgrounds and styles to enhance creativity, the ability to solve problems more effectively, discover new approaches to old issues and realize many other benefits. The key to doing all of this however is communication.

Communicating in a different way is critical

One of the main ways in which we ensure we are inclusive of people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, personalities, both genders, etc., is to monitor the language we use. In other words, it is easy to talk in ways (even when it just careless) which causes harm or hurts people and groups.

Language is a powerful vehicle of discrimination.  That is, if individuals or groups are labelled consciously or unconsciously in demeaning, harmful or stereotyped ways, they often experience some degree of discomfort or pain or develop strong emotions which can lead to a negative self-image, feelings of inferiority and possibly expressions of anger or hatred.

Forms or examples of linguistic discrimination

Invisibility/exclusion. “To our grandfathers, steam trains were the latest in fast transport. Their grandfathers thought the horse and cart was the best way to travel.” Here, the use of the word “grandfather” not only obscures the fact that we have grandmothers who would have engaged in these activities but also excludes them. 

Focusing on one characteristic to the exclusion of others.The fundraiser of the year award went to Mrs Sheila W., who, despite being confined to a wheelchair, managed to raise £5000 for the club.” 

Stereotyped descriptions of people. “Suzy, the glamorous wife of leading lawyer John B., declined to comment on the rumors that … 

Asymmetrical treatment in language. “Five people, including one Pakistani, were picked up for questioning.” 

Language that insults or denigrates people.

This category of discriminatory language includes all forms of swearing and derogatory, defamatory words and expressions. Usually they are usually very easily recognized as discriminatory expressions. This category, however, also includes certain words and expressions used to make negative comparisons. For example: “The team was playing like a group of old [women].” 

Non-discriminatory portrayal of the sexes

Sexist language typically expresses bias in favor of one sex and thus treats the other sex in a discriminatory manner. Common forms of sexism in English include the use of “man” and “he/him/his” as generics – that is, nouns and pronouns referring to both men and women. E.g., “A manager will lead his team …”; “A supervisor and his assistant …”. 

Non-discriminatory portrayal of people with disabilities

Disabled people have often been described as helpless people to be pitied and to be taken care of (the very word “disabled” hinting at this of course).  In other cases, feelings of horror, disgust, and fear influenced the language used to describe them – people with a disability, especially those with mental or intellectual disabilities, were portrayed as dangerous, untidy, and erratic.  But attitudes towards disability have changed considerably over the past ten to fifteen years.  It is also important to realize that it is mainly the environment of people with a disability which highlights their disability.  Discriminatory language in relation to the portrayal of disabled people is characterized by depersonalizing – they are treated as a disability, rather than as a person with a disability, by highlighting the disability as the only characteristic of the person and by stereotyping. 

Non-discriminatory portrayal of people in relation to age

Labels such as ‘the old’, ‘the aged’, ‘inexperienced youth’, ‘juveniles’ are often commonly used.  Instead we can use descriptions such as older people, senior(s), senior citizen(s), a young person, young people. In other words, we can avoid stereotyping older people as frail, incapable of independence, a burden on society, no longer productive or active.  Similarly young people can be stereotyped as inexperienced, rebellious, immature or always energetic. In some contexts, reference to age is not only gratuitous but also contributes to discrimination and detracts from more relevant matters.

The above are just a few examples of discriminatory language. There are many others that are in common use, including some which are team or organization specific (talking about a group of people or even a whole department of an enterprise in a particular occupation in derogatory or unfairly stereotypical way for example). We therefore can be well-served to pay much more attention to this issue if we are serious about making progress in our efforts to actively promote greater diversity.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Candace HallMarch 22, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    I would like to learn more about your diversity awareness survey.

    • Dr. Jon WarnerMarch 26, 2013 at 7:22 pmAuthor

      We have an assessment rather than a survey and a sample can be seen at

  2. Larry CoppenrathMarch 27, 2015 at 1:46 pm


    I am curious about why you think that when it comes to “diversity” and the bias associated with it, Religion is never talked about. I have seen this bias in the workplace. Any thoughts ?


About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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