to address harassment, bullying and discrimination

 with Stephen Hammond


Language is fluid and the best way we can be sure we are using updated language is to listen to words people use to describe themselves.


In Canada, the word Indigenous is a blanket term to describe First Nations, Métis and Inuit. And yet, we will find many pieces of legislation making reference to Canadian Indians, Natives and Aboriginals; words that were used in years past. No one is going to have a heart attack if I use terminology that is not completely up to date, but if someone corrects me on updated language, I listen and adjust.


It’s always interesting to consider how preferred language changes. In the States, no one in touch would use the word “negro” to describe an African American, but the United Negro College Fund is one of the largest charitable organizations in the United States. Not wanting to abandon all of their heritage, but in keeping with the times, they now refer to themselves as UNCF. Language may be complex, but it doesn’t have to be if we come from a place of understanding as opposed to trying to “catch” someone.


Take the disputes going on over gender specific terminology. If a person doesn’t want to be referred to as “he” or “she,” this person may ask you to refer to them as “they.” “Ze,” “hir” or “zir” are also terms to keep gender specific language neutral. However, you won’t find these pronouns used by most people, either because most people aren’t yet familiar with them, no one has asked them to use these new words, or people flat out refuse to use them. On some Canadian campuses, issues surrounding these words are raging.


Don’t feel bad if you’re not certain what language to use. I haven’t felt comfortable to use “they” or “ze” in everyday language, but I’m very respectful when someone asks me to use these pronouns or I pick up the usage from just listening. It doesn’t take a lot of thought and I find when I slip-up, a quick reminder is what I get (never a lecture or anger).


However, when I’m writing, I find it’s relatively easy to stay away from “him” and “her” unless I’m referring to a legal case or media example where I’m referring to a person who does identify as male or female. I just change from singular to plural where I can write, for example, “If people at work stay away from sexual harassment, they won’t run into trouble…” I wrote two books before this was common and yet when I wrote my third book, it was an easy transition to make. I just found a simple way to change with the times.


Because there are so many words in the dictionary, I find it easy to keep up with changing terminology. If we just think changing language is about “political correctness” go back about 500 years and see if we’d insist on using the same language as was used back then. When language changed over the centuries, it wasn’t for “political correctness.” It was just change.



1) Be respectful of enquiries - if you or someone else at work asks another person why they don't like a certain word, or someone speaks up, saying they don't like a certain word, there are two ways of responding. One is to play it down or dismiss the importance of it. The other is to listen, try to understand, and then change the wording in the future. It's not that big a deal to change terminology, but it's a huge deal to the person who is affected.


2) Deal with someone complaining this is only "political correctness" - invariably there is someone who isn't willing to change - even in the face of outrageous words. Any suggestions to use different words are met with "this is politically correct b.s!" Sometimes that's enough to shut others down because this person is a bit (or a lot) of a bully. Don't let someone's insistence get in the way of wording that keeps your workplace respectful. Perhaps a correct response can be, "You may think this is about being politically correct; I still don't want to hear anyone using that inappropriate word."


3) You don't need all the answers – because sometimes people are sincerely perplexed about which words are appropriate. After all, if language is fluid, then there are plenty of times when words are overlapping and we are learning. As a supervisor, you don't have to know everything. If you don't know, just ask.

This is TIP #9 of 26 BI-WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors. 
It is available on a subscription basis.

Click on the "STORE" link in the top menu for more information.