29 Sep 2022
by Nina Driscoll

Words can hurt

Nina Driscoll, EY Financial Services Director talks about the impact words can have in in the workplace, and what change is needed to shape a more inclusive working culture this National Inclusion Week.

Language is one of the most important tools humans have at their disposal, and when used effectively, it creates a common understanding, which in turn creates a feeling of belonging and inclusion. Conversely, however, if used negatively it can create and reinforce barriers and feelings of alienation. The use of non-inclusive language is a sensitive, broad and complex topic and it is one that we must stop ignoring in the workplace.

Words in of themself are rarely the problem; it is the context within which they are used that can be problematic. In finance and technology particularly, there is an ever-changing technical vocabulary, and while many of the words are not inherently “bad”, the context they are used in can be. For example, the words “black” and “white” at their most basic represent colour, but when frequently used to infer a positive and a negative, the meaning of each word is loaded, and with it the likelihood of it causing offense or distress.

A recent report by UK Finance, EY and Microsoft entitled ‘Non-inclusive language in technology and cybersecurity and why it matters’ outlines a non-exhaustive list of words and terms that currently have a negative impact on how someone in the workplace feels. Language is an ever-evolving art form which changes by and with the population that uses it, and further problematic words and terms continue to be identified in technology such as ‘childless’ in reference to application management, ‘orphan’ in reference to computer products, programs, and platforms that have been abandoned by their original developers and ‘end of life’ to describe the useful life of a product.

The current UK regulatory focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) is a massive and positive step in the right direction. It should accelerate change to the language the sector uses that can have a negative impact on different groups of people. Individuals – both as consumers and employees - should start to expect more from financial services organisations when it comes to the language they use. But how to do this?

Organisations and leaders looking to make positive change should start at the grassroots; set strong firm-wide expectations and commit to continual review of progress. A good first place to start is with identifying non-inclusive language. The methodology outlined in our recent report remains relevant and can help to deliver individual and organisation-wide structured change. Using specialist teams, work should focus on:

  1. Making technical changes to existing [and future] products and services – this is about identifying and replacing non-inclusive terms used in system architecture and designs
  2. Driving the right culture from the top down with engagement of a senior sponsor and a core team of champions from across the organisation to provide leadership
  3. Engaging employees in the conversation of [non] inclusive language by encouraging open dialogue, encouraging people to come forward, and by providing training and education
  4. Continuous improvement, achieved by scheduling regular policy reviews and considering the wider impact of non-inclusive language beyond technology and cybersecurity.

Awareness is key, and we all have a duty to help drive change. How we use language and the potential impact it can have on individuals can run deep and it can be destructive. It’s important that firms take an active role, and I hope to see change happen both retrospectively and continually as language evolves to encompass new processes, ways of working and tech. This should be supported by continual learning programmes that encourage awareness of differences. Using inclusive language is vital to cultivating the right sort of behaviours and, ultimately, achieving the best outcomes.


Nina Driscoll

Nina Driscoll

Financial Services Director , EY