“How are you guys doing?”
“Can you guys give me a status update?”
“Great work, you guys.”
These common questions are ingrained in our everyday work conversations, but they all have a notorious phrase in common: “you guys.”
These are two words many people use. So what’s the big deal?
As it turns out, even small phrases like “you guys” can make a big difference when it comes to feeling included and supported in the workplace.
“Guys is an easygoing way to address a group of people, but to many, it’s a symbol of exclusion—a word with an originally male meaning that is frequently used to refer to people who don’t consider themselves ‘guys,’ Joe Pinkser of The Atlantic wrote.
While the person saying “you guys” may not intend to exclude others, this language can still have an exclusionary effect on the people listening. Words shape how we feel about ourselves and others, and exclusive language like “you guys” can make others feel uncomfortable, alienated and even disrespected.
It can also have effects on workplace identity, engagement and performance.
According to a study done by Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy program, “The use of gender-exclusive language (such as using masculine pronouns) can cause women to feel ostracized and less motivated in important professional environments...Women responded with a lower sense of belonging, less motivation, and less expected identification with the job compared to others exposed to gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language.”
Inclusive language is the best way to make sure all coworkers feel accepted and supported in the workplace. It’s also the best way to achieve a workplace of highly engaged and productive employees.
Luckily, making the undermining phrase “you guys” inclusive doesn’t involve much of a change — in fact, some of the alternatives are even shorter than the already short two-word phrase. There's no "one size fits all” alternative, so use what works best for you and your team.
There are still days when I address my non-male coworkers as “you guys,” and as someone who’s lived her entire life in the northeast, I’m not sure I can really pull off “y’all.” Yet choosing something besides “you guys” isn’t a burden. When I make the mistake, I correct myself or pick another alternative. It’s worth the little extra effort to make my coworkers feel respected, supported and empowered — and to make our workplace just that much better, too.
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