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Lior Locher

NIIT

Learning Consultant

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Reckoning with language: Embracing candid DEI conversations

Language is, arguably, at the foundation of everything. Not least progress in diversity, equity and inclusion. There’s no effective and meaningful DEI training without the vocabulary needed to have transformative conversations. Lior Locher and Dr Christy Allen explore the power of words and their crucial role in growth.
green white and brown floral textile depicting two abstract people having a conversation symbolising the importance of language in progressing DEI

In our previous article introducing the series, we urged a holistic response to the current backlash against DEI initiatives, asking what it means to remain committed to creating inclusive workplaces free of discrimination and harassment.

In this article, we want to zero in on the fundamental building block of the ability to reckon with these questions: the fight over the very words we can use when we talk about DEI training programmes. 

We want to dive into why it’s important to your learners that you don’t give away your right to use your words. Even when – and possibly especially when – it’s uncomfortable. 

DEI as shorthand for all sorts of things

In the US, every day brings another headline addressing the backlash against DEI, and they often centre on language. 

For instance, Green and Foxman’s recent reporting in Bloomberg showed data that more than a dozen major US companies “removed diversity language or substituted words that could be deemed less controversial”.  

While unsettling, this isn’t surprising, given that some of these organisations have been targets of threatened lawsuits by conservative groups like the American Alliance for Equal Rights.  

Those leading this backlash flatten the reality and complexity of DEI programmes. They advance the notion that they are equivalent to discriminatory hiring practices against those who’ve traditionally held power and majority positions. 

Language’s learning opportunities

The job of language is to name things, which can create discomfort. Often this charge means you are looking into the right places; otherwise, there would be nothing to learn. 

Some conflate the discomfort that people may feel discussing things like racism and gender with the idea that those raising the discussion at all are claiming “moral superiority” or some sort of “reverse discrimination”.

As DEI practitioner and author Lily Zheng stated on LinkedIn recently, “the recent wave of DEI backlash has virtually nothing in common with [these] actual challenges, and in fact is largely directed at a straw man caricature of DEI that doesn't actually exist.”  

And while the straw man garners the backlash, it’s important to notice the dichotomy here: most of these organisations that have removed or substituted diversity language still state they remain committed to continuing their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training in order to foster inclusion and achieve the benefits of a diverse workforce. 

This begs the question: can that be accomplished without the vocabulary to have open conversations about these issues? 

The job of language is to name things, which can create discomfort

A case for doubling down on evidence-based learning methodologies 

If training professionals are trying to find a middle ground by advocating for new terminology and framing, they often do so in conjunction with pointing out that many pillars of DEI corporate training fail to show results – or can even lead to backlash. 

Not all programmes are evidence-based, as recently called out by the UK government panel.  

Yet, as learning professionals with experience consulting across domains in the US and the UK, we know this has never been a DEI problem alone. 

We’ve long advised that learning efforts should align to business challenges and be grounded in evidence-based practice and adult learning principles.

Avoid avoiding language 

The solution should be improving DEI strategies and training content against your business context and goals. 

Good solid learning work – not avoiding the language or certain modules around bias altogether. 

For instance, as we pointed out in our previous series, one evidence-based way to increase the effectiveness of modules like Unconscious Bias is to ensure immersive, psychologically-safe practice in concrete actions people can take towards mindful behaviour change. 

Don't make the DEI label the excuse

Yet, instead of focusing on the learning, some propose meeting this moment by moving away from direct DEI terminology – arguing for using “less politically charged” words and framing. 

However, avoiding language that explicitly names privilege, marginalisation and difference can easily become an excuse for deflecting from uncomfortable but necessary discussions. 

And we’d argue, having those conversations is an interpersonal skill your learners need in all aspects of their work life at your organisation. 

Just as we urged considering the effects of traditional DEI training exercises on minority communities like LGBTQ+ in a privilege walk, we’d ask those moving in this direction in learning to consider a similar perspective. 

Having those conversations is an interpersonal skill your learners need in all aspects of their work life at your organisation

Putting safety and inclusivity first

Some may view this push for a ‘new narrative’ in DEI as tone policing, rather than an authentic effort to address real learning. 

It’s important to state plainly how we’ve observed this landing with seasoned DEI professionals who forge innovation in the field. They’re asking, fairly: are we ceding ground too soon? 

Are we centering the feelings of those with privilege, rather than focusing on the learning objectives we have identified that would make the workplace safe and inclusive for all, and business more effective?

Don’t forget the basics: What were you trying to do with the DEI training? 

While it does take care, due diligence and awareness in order to ensure any initiative is within legal bounds in your location, there are pragmatic approaches that lend themselves to risk mitigation without abandoning key learning. 

As Yoshino and Glasgow point out, there are ways to check your DEI programmes against key questions to ensure risk mitigation. 

Pairing evidence-based learning strategies with practical and strategic planning could go a long way to ensure your organisation isn’t giving in to excessively diluted language stripped of its potential to serve your learners. 

There are ways to check your DEI programmes against key questions to ensure risk mitigation

Discomfort can yield meaningful change

When it comes to DEI education, leaning into the discomfort and navigating past mistakes is where meaningful progress occurs. 

In fact, we argue that it’s in making critical mistakes and receiving coaching is where the learning actually happens.  

As a learning function, it’s important to not lose sight of this, though it may necessitate generating the support you need within your organisation to role model the commitment required to make workplaces authentically inclusive for all.  

The current charged atmosphere has organisations understandably cautious. Here is our invitation to embrace candid language and clear words for your DEI conversations within your training. 

Prioritising psychological comfort over frank dialogue is a missed opportunity for growth, for each individual and for the organisation as a thriving, resilient organism. 

Have you read the first article in the series? Check it out here: A time of reckoning for L&D: Who does what in diversity, equity and inclusion?

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Lior Locher

Learning Consultant

Read more from Lior Locher
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