When Richard Branson walks through the airport greeting Virgin Atlantic employees and chatting away with customers, we applaud him for taking time to appreciate others. A little thing like saying hello goes a long way. Taking a personal interest in team members and expressing concern for the challenges they’re going through builds deep connections that break down the office walls. Sending a thank you note, being on time, and saying please…these are all little things that are widely believed to make a big difference. Thousands of leadership development books suggest when you pay attention to the little things, big things will happen.
If we all agree that the little things make such a difference, then why do so many people believe gender-neutral language in the workplace is extreme and unnecessary? Last week, Laurie Ruettimann wrote a blog post that encouraged leaders to stop saying the phrase “Hey guys” when interacting with their team. She goes further by explaining both the expressed and and implicit ways we reinforce gender stereotypes in the workplace. The issue is pervasive and affects everything from the application rate of females for job descriptions using masculine language to the words managers use in performance reviews for males versus females.
While saying “Hey guys” may seem innocuous, there are individuals who may feel excluded or disconnected from the team as a result. If the phrase thank you can create higher engagement and loyalty, then why are we surprised that the phrase “hey guys” could create disengagement? And yet, Laurie’s post received responses from HR professionals expressing that this was an example of inclusivity gone too far. This begs the question, is it possible to be too inclusive?
An important side effect of consciously eliminating common gender-based phrases from the workplace is that it creates an elevated awareness of implicit and explicit gender biases. With annual performance reviews right around the corner, leaders will soon have the opportunity to formally express the strengths and weaknesses of their employees. Again, this is a place where the little things matter.
Words like bossy, feisty, excitable, and scattered are used far more frequently for women (if at all), while words like confident, assertive, and analytical are more commonly used for men. These words carry significant weight. While they may seem like innocent development suggestions, these words serve as an anchor to weigh women down as their male counterparts negotiate raises, promotions, and stretch opportunities.
The little things matter.
The location and height of each chair during a negotiation matters. The person who is nominated to take notes during a group brainstorm matters. The effect and perception of someone interrupting a colleague matters. Common vs. uncommon names matter.
It all matters.
And while you may think banning the phrase “hey guys” seems extreme, becoming more thoughtful about the words we use and the power behind them will always be a fruitful endeavor.