A Guide to Using Bias Free Language in Business Communication
What is Bias?
Bias is a natural inclination for or against an idea. It’s a tendency to believe that some people or ideas are better than others that usually results in treating some people unfairly. Another way of describing bias, specifically bias in language, is words and phrases that unfairly and unethically categorize people.
Biased language occurs not only in job descriptions, but in just about any form of written or spoken business communication. For some people, biased language may seem obvious, but for others it might not be noticeable because it has been part of their daily lives since childhood.
Starting at a young age, we learn to discriminate between those who are like us and those who are not like us. Learning bias can be both positive and negative. For example, on a positive note, bias serves us in developing a sense of identity and safety. However, the dark side of bias leads to a mentality of “us-versus-them.”
Recall a time when you were in grade school. You might have joined an alliance with a group of peers of the same sex. Let’s say, for example, you identify as a girl and your peers were all girls. You might have shunned away boys by saying something like, “ewe, boys have cooties” or “girls only, boys ‘not allowed’ in our study or play group.” Both examples show a bias toward boys and create an “us” (girls) versus “them” (boys) mentality.
At the individual level, bias can negatively affect someone’s personal and professional relationships. At a societal level, it can lead to unfair persecution of a group, as seen in history with the Holocaust in Europe and slavery in America. As a society, we’ve come a long way since the days when the bigotry of Archie Bunker from the hit 1970s television show All in the Family was commonplace across American households. Unfortunately, for many people, bias language is a big part of their everyday communication style, which often spills over into the workplace. Thus, we need to be mindful when communicating with others in professional settings.
Bias Free Language Definition
A bias-free language (or unbiased language) avoids words and phrases that unfairly and unethically categorize people based on their gender, race, ethnicity, age, disability, and other characteristics. Some may argue that biased language is how we label specific categories of people. However, language reflects how we think and what we believe. Because communication is about perception, biased communication can perpetuate the underlying stereotypes and prejudices it represents.
Effective communicators avoid bias in communication when writing or speaking to a business audience. Although changing how we use language and communicate is not easy or automatic, but necessary to succeed in any professional context. Effective communicators must seek to change their familiar ways of writing and speaking if they are to create the perception of acceptance and fairness from their audience. The communicator’s goal is to communicate to a diverse group of people respectfully so that people feel accepted and comfortable and will respond and cooperate. Because ultimately, the purpose of communication is to create a shared understanding and cooperation between the communicator and receiver.
Bias Free Language in Business Communication
Of all the contexts in which communication takes place, business communication is perhaps one of the most important arenas where communicators must exercise caution when using biased language. Speaking or writing language that excludes a certain group of people can have dire consequences for the business communicator. There are laws that protect people from being discriminated against by their employers and co-workers. However, if you pay close attention to many business writings, especially written job descriptions, you see many communications that contain some form of biased language. It does not always happen, however, employees or audiences that receive biased language directed toward them may challenge the communicator, ultimately ending up in legal action.
For example, posted job descriptions often contain biased language towards a specific age group or gender. Some postings are not obvious, while others are blatant in their biased language. Here are two examples of job posting excerpts taken from a popular job search website. Can you identify the biased language in both examples?
Biased Job Listing Example 1
The Marketing Manager will be capable/responsible for creating and executing our marketing strategy. Put simply, he will help our team build the brand and put leads at the top of the “funnel” for our business development team.
Biased Job Listing Example 2
Desired Job Requirements:
- Bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience
- 3+ years of experience in marketing
- Strong verbal, written, and organizational skills
- Strong Attention to detail
- Female, aged 25 – 35 years old
Many of you who read the first example may not immediately notice the biased-language. Nevertheless, the second example of biased language in the job description is the most prominent; “the employer is seeking a specific age range and gender for a job that anyone with the required experience can perform.”
In the first example, the statement, “he will…” implies the employer prefers a male candidate to a female candidate for the job. The second example blatantly calls out the specific age range and gender of the desired candidate; a female aged between 25 and 35 years old. In both examples, the written language excludes a certain group of people for a job that should be open to everyone, regardless of their gender and age.
A biased working environment can damage your company’s brand image and ultimately cause potential employees to leave or customers to boycott your company’s products. Many examples exist of customers and companies boycotting others over bias, including this 2020 boycott of Facebook by advertisers over racism, one of the strongest forms of prejudice. As a result, it is imperative that every business communicator adhere to an impartial linguistic communication policy when writing or speaking. As a first step toward countering biased communication, it is important to understand the forms and varieties of bias communication.
Types of Biased Language with Communication Bias Examples
Communicating with coworkers, customers, and vendors in a non-biased manner is essential to business success. Avoiding such issues helps maintain a healthy brand image, while avoiding unnecessary costs caused by biased language. Avoiding communication issues helps contribute to an inclusive, positive working environment which is healthy for a business’s survival.
The following guidelines are suggestions for how to reduce the chance of biased communication when communicating to describe people of various races and ethnicities. The list of biased language and communication bias examples is not conclusive, but a selection of some of the notable ways to improve your communication about the topic.
As we discuss bias-free language, I segment the topic into two major categories: cultural awareness and gender neutrality. Language choices related to age, race and ethnicity, physical status (disabilities), social status, religion, and national origin all fall into this first category of understanding bias-free language.
Growing cultural awareness changes social perceptions. Business writers and speakers should develop a process for checking the status of terms in updated dictionary sources because of the fluidity of cultural changes. What was once acceptable as words and phrases can easily be outdated and determined biased language.
The second category of bias-free language focuses on examples of bias toward gender and sexual orientation and provides examples of how to avoid bias in those areas.
In language, gender signals are inherent. Many languages, especially English, show gender with feminine or masculine words, especially the use of pronouns like he, him his versus she, her, hers. Nouns do not get a free pass either with gender. For example, words like waiter vs. waitress, or actress vs. actor lean toward masculine or feminine connotations when used. As writers and speakers, you should be aware of these gender distinction words when addressing your readers or audiences and use gender-neutral language to avoid alienating them.
Bias-Free Language in Cultural Awareness
Race and Ethnicity
Race and ethnicity bias, along with gender bias, are perhaps two of the most prominent forms of bias in communication. People do not get to select in what country, which race, or what ethnicity they are born into. However, stereotypes of race and ethnicity persist in written and oral communication despite stereotypes of any group being false when matched up to a person’s individual traits. Thus, the misuse of stereotypes is a fundamental reason using race or ethnic category terms are inappropriate.
Here are some guidelines for bias-free communication regarding race and ethnicity.
- In writing or speaking, do not identify people based on their race or ethnicity. The exception is if race or ethnicity applies to the conversation. To illustrate, you never mention that a person is “white” or Anglo-Saxon in your communication. This should also apply to other groups.
Biased-Language (Inappropriate) Unbiased-Language (Appropriate)
Jay Thomas, the black CEO of the company, helped motivate employees. Jay Thomas, the company CEO, helped motivate employees.
Sabrina Smith, a Hispanic administrative assistant, was promoted to office manager. Sabrina Smith, an administrative assistant, was promoted to office manager.
Jensen's, the black owned supermarket, is planning a sale this weekend. Jensen's Supermarket is planning a sale this weekend.
- Do not use terms or phrases that imply a group is culturally disadvantaged. Avoid using terms such as “nonwhite” since they establish white culture as the benchmark against which all other cultures are measured. Also, refrain from using terms such as “culturally disadvantaged” and “culturally deprived,” which imply that the dominant culture is superior. This may also suggest other groups lack culture.
When a minority group is pertinent, specify the minority group such as “Asian American” or refer to the individuals of the groups as “members of a minority group.”
Biased-Language (Inappropriate) Unbiased-Language (Appropriate)
Women and minorities are encouraged to apply for the leadership team. Women and members of minority groups are encouraged to apply for the leadership team.
Minorities attended the meeting. Members of the Latin and Native American communities attended the meeting.
- Be careful not to reinforce stereotypes that suggest people of one ethnicity are all the same.
Biased Statement Example The Problem with the Statement
We're not surprised that the Asian-American employees did best in their performance reviews. Assuming it is relevant to point out that this group excelled, the statement "not surprised" may reinforce the stereotype that all Asian Americans our superior work performers.
- Don’t stereotype a race, nationality, or ethnic group based on its religion. For example, most nationalities and ethnicities embody different religious practices. Because a person is of Arab descent, does not make them a Muslim. Do not make assumptions.
- Whether you are writing, speaking, or using visual materials, include a fair representation of ethnicities and cultures.
The top visual is an illustration depicting a diverse group of ethnicities in a single visual. The same holds true for the lifestyle photo on the bottom. Both visuals attempt to include a selection of people with different ethnic backgrounds to represent the diversity of the communication piece the image is a part of.
Age Related Biases in Communication
Age bias is perhaps prominent in almost every area of business. From employment listings specifying a certain age requirement for the job to mature workers being denied jobs because of a subconscious bias by the hiring manager. In fact, age discrimination affects not only the worker, but their families too. In 2018, AARP’s Economic Impact of Age Discrimination report estimates that age bias may cost the U.S. economy $850 billion. That’s a hefty price tag for business just for age bias.
Following are some guidelines on how to avoid being biased against older or younger employees in the workplace.
- Refer to a person’s age only if it is relevant to the message. Journalists will often refer to age in their writing, but in a majority of business communications, mentioning age has no relevance to the message.
Biased Example Unbiased Example
The new administrative assistant, age 56, is qualified to train employees as well. Samantha, 15, is the youngest intern the company has hired in its 100 years in business.
- When using a generic age description, such as senior citizen, or youth, ask your subject what wording they prefer, if any.
Avoid using cliches such as “precocious”, “spry,” or “chipper” as these refer to a person’s age.
Don’t use generalizations that reinforce stereotypes about a person’s age. For example, not all middle school children are troublemakers, and not everyone over the age of 80 lives in a nursing home.
Avoid using patronizing language.
Biased Patronizing Language Unbiased Language
The sweet old lady was joyful as she entered the classroom. The older woman was smiling as she entered the classroom.
- Where appropriate, use visuals representing a diverse range of people. Exceptions may include visual communications directed at a specific age group, like 55 or older.
In the visual example below, the top image depicts a diverse range of individuals including young and older. The second photo illustrates a visual with only senior citizens. The second image is best suited for communication pieces that are directing their message toward the senior aged demographics and do not need to include a diverse range of ages.
Physical Status (Disability) Related Biases in Communication
Biased communication directed toward people with physical or mental limitations often leads to the person feeling “less than” a “whole” person. Nothing could be further from the truth. We all have limitations to a certain degree. Some limitations are visually clear, while others are not and may often be subtle, such as arthritis.
Terms used to describe a person with disabilities include impairment, disability, and handicap. While some may use all three terms interchangeably, they are not synonymous terms.
Impairment is a physiological condition. As an example, arthritis is an impairment affecting damaged tissue in a person’s joints. The pain may impair a person from performing their duties temporarily.
Disability results from an impairment. Disabilities may or may not be handicapping. For example, a disability that results from arthritis may include difficulty typing on a computer or walking and bending to perform tasks.
A handicap is the social implication of a disability. In other words, a handicap is a condition or barrier imposed by society, the environment, or oneself. The term handicap should not be used to describe a disability. For example, people with arthritis in their knees or hips may consider themselves handicap in a building without an elevator. However, they do not consider themselves handicap absent from such obstacles.
Following are some guidelines on how to avoid biased communication related to physical status.
- Do not automatically view people with disabilities, whether because of injury or pre-existing diseases, as sick or suffering from disease.
When writing or speaking about people with disabilities, place the person first, not their disability.
Biased Language Preferred Unbiased Communication
The visually impaired musician used a special piano to play music at the concert. At the concert, the musician played a special piano because he was visually impaired.
- Avoid focusing on disability unless it applies to your communication.
Irrelevant Biased Communication Relevant Unbiased Communication
The new CEO, whose struggle with polio left him on crutches, will lead the organization at the beginning of the month. In her presentation to all employees on disabled workers' rights, the CEO speaks from experience. She has been a paraplegic since childhood.
- When using visual communications, such as photos or illustrations, depict disabled people taking part in everyday activities alongside non-disabled people. Avoid focusing on adaptive equipment such as crutches and wheelchairs.
Note that the top photo, below, showcases a group of diverse people socializing. At first glance you may notice the person sitting in the wheelchair. This photo represents people, disabled and non-disabled, engaging in everyday activities. The photo below focuses on the two peoples disability. While the image may be acceptable for a marketing communication piece focused on just disabled people, it is best to select the first image for a wider application when visually communicating about diversity.
- When the communication context requires a discussion about people with and without disabilities, use the term “people without disabilities” or “nondisabled” rather than “normal” or “able-bodied.” The term “able-bodied” implies that all disabled people are physically disabled or incapable of compensating for their disabilities. By comparison, the term normal implies that disabled people are abnormal.
When discussing people with disabilities, avoid language that portrays them as helpless victims or unfortunate. On the other hand, avoid extremes, like portraying disabled people as courageous superhumans.
Bias-Free Gender-Neutral and Sexual Orientation Language
Gender is an integral part of language, particularly in English. From its earliest history, the English language has often marked words as either male or female. This is especially true with pronouns like he, him, his, versus she, her, and hers. Several nouns offer a male and female form. For example, waiter and waitress or host and hostess. Being sensitive to communication about gender is crucial in today’s business environment.
Not only do people prefer pronouns such as they/them for non-binary sexual orientation, but also for gender neutral descriptions.
Following are some guidelines on how to avoid biased communication related to gender and sexual orientation.
- Replace gender biased words for gender neutral words when communicating to a general, diverse audience.
Gender-Biased Word Gender-Neutral Word Replacement
mankind people, humanity, human beings
man-to-man defense one-to-one defense
man the operation staff the operation
manpower labor, human resources
layman's terms ordinary terms
man hours staff hours, hours
manmade manufactured, synthetic, artificial
stewardess flight attendant
chairman chair, chairperson
waitress/waiter server, serving person
- Do not assume a person is married or single. Address everyone by including both male and female reference points.
Biased Word Unbiased Word Replacement
employees and wives/husbands employees and guests, employee and spouses
You and your spouse are invited.... You and your guest are invited....
boyfriends/girlfriends friends, guests, partners
Dear Sir Dear Sir or Madam, Dear Madam or Sir, Dear Colleague, Greetings
- Avoid gender-biased pronouns by:
Removing pronouns showing gender and restructure the statement.
With Biased Pronoun With Restructured Pronoun
Each employee should complete his own health survey. Each employee should complete their own health survey.
Changing the pronoun to a plural construction.
With Biased Pronoun With Restructured Pronoun
Each employee should complete his health survey by the end of their shift. Employees complete health surveys by the end of their shift.
A department head mentors her employee. Department heads mentor their employees.
Replacing masculine or feminine pronouns with the words, “one” or “you.”
Masculine/Feminine Pronoun Recommended Replacement
Each employee should complete his health survey by the end of their shift. You should complete your health survey by the end of your shift.
Avoid awkward pronoun construction that imply woman are considered the subject only as an afterthought. For example: he(she), s/he, (s)he, or him/her.
Awkward Pronoun Construction Recommended Replacement
As the director of sales, s/he is entitled to a company car. The director of sales is entitled to a company car.
When onboarding a new employee, ask him/her to provide a valid ID. When onboarding new employees, ask them to provide a valid ID.
- In order to make references consistent, use a parallelism to refer to women and men equally.
Without Parallelism With Parallelism
David Garcia, a strong leader, and Kathleen Jones, an attractive young administrative assistant, are working on the project together. Garcia, a strong leader, and Jones, an administrative assistant, are working on the project together.
8 men employees and 11 female employees 8 male employees and 11 female employees
Chef Brown and Julia Sanderson were hired to lead the new Italian restaurant. Chef Brown and Chef Sanderson were hired to lead the new Italian restaurant.
- When communicating on relevant qualities, avoid sexual stereotyping.
Biased Example Unbiased Example
She's a good leader. She makes decisive decisions like a man. She's a good leader. She makes decisive decisions.
Janice is a brilliant female boss. Janice is a brilliant boss.
- Avoid visual communication pieces depicting men working while women standby or sit and observe. Also, consider the balance of men to women in the visual communication pieces as well as nonverbal messages conveyed by portraying men and women.
Take a look at the two photographs below. Both visually communicate a fair balance of both men and women in the workplace and demonstrate equality in the workforce. Neither men nor women are sitting an observing while the other sex is working. Boht photographs are suitable visual representations for both sexes.
Sexual Orientation Bias-Free Language
- Using the term “sexual preference” implies that being homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual is a matter of choice. The preferred terms to sexual orientation are “gender orientation” and “sexual orientation.”
- A majority of gay people prefer the term “gay” versus the clinical term, “homosexual.” The word “gay” can refer to both men and women of the gay community. However, the term “lesbian” is the word preferred by most gay women. People who identify as bisexual may not consider themselves members of gay or heterosexual communities. Best practices for biased-free sexual orientation communication are to ask people the term they prefer.
- You should avoid using terms like “gay lifestyle” or “lesbian lifestyle.” Being gay or lesbian isn’t a lifestyle; it is an orientation. Like the rest of the population, gay people live diverse lives and have diverse relationships.
Biases are neither good nor bad. They can serve us in developing a sense of identity and provide a shortcut to sensing danger. However, when used negatively, biases can lead to a mentality that aims to alienate groups of people that appear different from us. The way we communicate our biases can have a lasting impact on the people with whom we work or are closest.
One specific area that biased communication may have a negative impact is business communication within a business context. People communicating verbally and visually have a responsibility to select words that do not have the potential to offend or isolate others based on their race, ethnicity, culture, age, sex, or religious beliefs.
Business professionals and leaders who want to be viewed as empathetic, accepting, tolerant, and credible communicators need to change their thinking away from what they learned in their early years and engage in more bias-free and inclusive communication while still accepting others. Business professionals that use unbiased communication gain more cooperation from their co-workers. Communicating in a bias-free manner elevates the communicators’ status and helps preserve the integrity and credibility of the organization and brand.
Communication Activity: Business Meeting Bias.
The next time you sit in a business meeting, either in-person or remotely, through a digital channel, practice active listening and try to identify the biases you hear toward your co-workers, vendors, or customers. Do you notice any biased language or visual communication in conversation? Is the biased language spoken by a leadership team member or a peer? How does the biased language spoken make you feel?