The final word on words at work


By Lisa Annese, CEO, DCA.

As CEO of Diversity Council Australia (DCA), I feel it’s time to go on record again and set a few things straight.

The media response to our WordsAtWork material has been disheartening – and inaccurate.

DCA’s WordsAtWork guidelines are exactly that. Guidelines. They are not prescriptive or a moral parking ticket issued by the PC police. 

They are merely a guide to get people thinking about the language they use in the workplace, and how it affects others. 

Workplace cultures are created and reinforced by the interactions every individual has with other people, every day, multiplied many times over.  In a time when we are discussing toxic or bullying workplace cultures, this stuff matters.

Think before you speak, if you will. An old adage that’s set out in childhood and continues to serve us well in a working world staffed by diverse demographics, experiences and cultural backgrounds. 

WordsAtWork is only a fraction of what we do at DCA – for many years we have conducted ground-breaking work in areas such as gender and cultural diversity, Asia capability, inclusive leadership, and flexible working.

When it comes to language, we have tried talking about the topic in many ways and registers. Much of it light and engaging. An approach which, ironically, often results in a torrent of abuse.

Well, now it’s best to talk straight, and provide what I hope is the final word on some of the most inaccurate reports.

‘Mum and dad’           

WordsAtWork isn’t an instruction to not use the words ‘mum and dad’. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that the modern family is an evolving concept. There are single parents, same-sex parents, as well as blended families.

Inclusive language gives us a more accurate view of the real world by reflecting social diversity rather than perpetuating stereotypes, in this case based on the model of the traditional family.

We are not saying you shouldn’t use the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ but always using them without having proper context in the workplace can reinforce the idea that people are always in heterosexual, married relationships. In the same way, always referring to ‘mum and dad’ can make many families, like the ones outlined above, feel excluded.

Being aware avoids making false assumptions about (or stereotyping) people based on their background or personal situation. It just doesn’t hurt to remember that other people’s life experiences may be different to yours.

‘Invasion and colonisation’ vs ‘settlement’

When we touch on this in the WordsAtWork guide, it’s about recognising a deeply painful reality for many people:  Australia was not settled peacefully. Sovereignty was not ceded in many people’s eyes. 

The language we use around our country and our history can make groups of people invisible in an already fraught climate, where Indigenous disadvantage remains in key social areas, such as employment, health and education.

Closing these gaps is one of our greatest social challenges as a nation, and it has complex solutions. But one of the small things we can do is show solidarity, and within that acknowledge the bias expressed through language we use about settlement.

This is good for us

Despite the media backlash, research shows that inclusion is both wanted and beneficial.

Our recent [email protected] Index – a nationally representative survey of 3,000 people which measured the impact and extent of inclusion in modern Australian workplaces – revealed that 3 out of 4 Australian workers support or strongly support their organisation taking action to create a workplace which is diverse and inclusive.

Only 3% oppose or strongly oppose their organisation taking action.

What’s more, findings from the [email protected] Index showed employees in an inclusive team are:

  • 10 times more likely to be highly effective than workers in non-inclusive teams
  • 9 times more likely to innovate
  • 5 times more likely to provide excellent customer/client service.

Inclusive language is a key part of what creates these business benefits.  It’s a starting point for learning and communication.

At DCA, we do not create lists of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ language. Instead, we explain why and how some language can include or exclude, and that every organisation has a choice to determine what kind of workplace it wants to provide for its employees.

At DCA, our evidence-based guiding principles are just that, guiding principles. And as the data shows, they can benefit us all.  


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