In our ever-evolving world, fostering cultural sensitivity is paramount for minimizing legal risks and creating inclusive, respectful work environments. Language plays a crucial role in shaping our perceptions, and unfortunately, some words used in everyday conversation may perpetuate stereotypes and contribute to cultural insensitivity. As employers gear up for the new year, they should consider abandoning the following words and phrases. Encouraging their employees to do the same will help create more inclusive work environments and mitigate the risk of discrimination claims brought by members of their workforce.

“Gypped”: Often used casually to describe being defrauded, swindled, or cheated, this term is derived from the term “Gypsy,” which holds negative connotations for the Romani people. These words perpetuate negative stereotypes and oversimplify the Romani people’s rich and diverse culture. Notably, there are a handful of court cases where employees have alleged unlawful discrimination based on coworkers referring to them as “Gypsies,” and courts have found that “Gypsy” falls within the term “national origin” within the meaning of Title VII.[1]

“Spirit Animal”: This phrase, borrowed from indigenous cultures, diminishes the significance of totemic animals in their spiritual practices and trivializes indigenous people’s relationships to the animal world. To express admiration or inspiration for someone or something, you might choose alternative phrases like “personal hero” or “role model.”

“Powwow”: Originating from Native American traditions, the term “powwow” has been misappropriated to describe casual meetings or gatherings. Using it in this context trivializes the cultural and spiritual importance of these events. Opt for more appropriate alternatives such as “meeting” or “huddle.”

“Crazy,” “Insane,” “Lame,” or “Dumb”: These terms, commonly used in colloquial language, are ableist and may perpetuate mental health stigma, and as such, these terms can be offensive to individuals dealing with their mental health challenges or those of family members or friends. Choose more empathetic and precise language, such as “unbelievable,” “intense,” or “outlandish.” A Minnesota court found the use of the terms “crazy,” “dumb,” and “mental case” significant in deciding to deny an employer’s motion for summary judgment on an employee’s hostile work environment claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act.[2]

“Illegal Alien”: When referring to immigrants, particularly those without legal documentation, using this term dehumanizes individuals and oversimplifies complex legal situations. Instead, if it is absolutely necessary to discuss someone’s immigration status, use the phrase “undocumented immigrant.”

“You’re So OCD”: Using “OCD” casually to describe someone meticulous or organized trivializes a serious mental health condition. More accurate descriptions like “detail-oriented” or “organized” are likely better and less problematic.

“Exotic” to describe people: Refrain from using “exotic” when referring to individuals from different cultures. It objectifies and simplifies diverse identities. Instead, appreciate and celebrate cultural differences without reducing an individual to their appearance.

“Tone-Deaf”: Using the word tone-deaf reinforces the idea that deaf or non-speaking/non-verbal individuals are somehow less than those without hearing impairments. Through the use of such ableist language, we perpetuate violence against individuals who experience mental or psychological disabilities. Instead, use the words “insensitive” or “inconsiderate.”

Language evolves, and so too can employers’ awareness of the impact words can have on others. By actively choosing language that respects and acknowledges diverse cultures, an employer can contribute to a more inclusive and understanding workplace while also mitigating legal risks associated with claims of discrimination. As a general rule, employers should avoid using words and phrases that refer to an individual’s protected characteristics and should instead focus on communicating deliberately and respectfully with their workforce in everyday conversation.

[1] See, e.g., Janko v. Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, 704 F.Supp. 1531 (N.D. Ill. 1989).

[2] See Schwarzkopf v. Brunswick Corp., 833 F.Supp.2d 1106, 1116-17 (D. Minn. 2011).