Words matter. It can be hard to believe that simply using certain adjectives or phrasing can play a significant role in impeding someone’s progress and success in their career, but it can, and the phenomenon is called coded language.
Coded language describes seemingly run-of-the-mill words or phrases that have alternative, offensive meanings. Most often, coded language is targeted at people of color, minorities, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and is used with the goal of portraying that group of people negatively and upholding systemic oppression. For example:
Using “illegal alien” instead of “undocumented immigrant” incites fear of immigrants or refuges, when, in fact, no human is illegal or alien.
Calling LGBTQ people “the gays” is a way of othering and is dehumanizing and casts heterosexuality as the norm.
Ultimately, coded language allows people to get away with discriminatory behavior since their remarks are veiled as ordinary, everyday words. It contributes to marginalization at work. Let’s learn more about why coded language is used, examples of it in the workplace, what the ramifications are, and how we can eliminate coded language from our vocabulary.
Why coded language is used
Essentially, coded language is used as a blanket in order to express subtle sexist, racist, and other identity-related stereotypes without actually saying words that are considered outright offensive. Unlike other offensive terms, coded language doesn’t actually make any reference to race, gender, or other identity markers. So, it’s an easy way for someone, whether they know they’re doing it or not, to maintain a position of power and hold back people who are different from them, without using super explicit language.
Especially after the past 18 months in which we’ve confronted our country’s ugly racial history and have had more open conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, coded language presents a challenge as a nearly invisible, charged style of discrimination that can be hard to pinpoint if you’re unaware of it.
Ian Haney-López, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, says, "The 20th century witnessed a strong push to get beyond white supremacy, to get beyond a social commitment to ideas that elevate whites as human and decent and worthy and nonwhites as less than human and dangerous and unworthy of concern. That push has been most successful at a formal level, but what you see in response sort of as an evolution is the search for proxy language that allows you to express the same fears in ways that aren't formally offensive."
6 examples of coded language at work
Although coded language is often used by politicians to subtly express bigoted beliefs, it’s not the only place that it shows up. Gender- and race-coded language remains rife in job descriptions, performance reviews, and other daily conversations. In order to call it out, we have to understand which words can be coded.
1. Culture fit
Replacement: Culture add
Meghan McCormick, a DEI-driven creative recruiter, says that when she’s hiring, she hears feedback along the lines of, “I don't know if they're a culture fit, I can't see myself getting a beer with them.” “Those words imply and overlook so much. It doesn't focus on any of the candidate's strengths, and it places an inordinate amount of weight on whether or not they will assimilate to the dominant culture of the organization.”
She adds that seeking a “fit,” can cause employers to overlook what a candidate might add to the culture in terms of their perspective, unique lived experiences, or skill sets. This type of coded language dismisses anyone who is on the outside dominant white, male culture.
“Bossy” is a coded word that’s often used to undermine or put down women, often in positions of power, who aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves and voice their opinions. The reality is, we would never hear a man referred to as “bossy” or “assertive”—that’s considered the norm. But when women act in the same manner, it becomes a negative attribute, and the word “bossy” becomes a tool to silence women’s voices.
Similarly to bossy, “sassy” is another coded word aimed at women who stand up for themselves, and it’s usually used against Black women who challenge the status quo—AKA challenge white, male standards and expectations. It’s yet another way of placing Black women into a box and perpetuating damaging stereotypes of the “sassy, angry Black woman.”
Read more: 4 Obstacles Holding Black Women Back at Work
“Competitive” has traditionally been regarded as a male-coded word. And research confirms that job descriptions in male-dominated industries like software programming still tend to overuse masculine-coded words like “competitive” compared to fields dominated by women. And whether it’s intentional or not, it unconsciously deters women from applying.
This term can cause any defense by a woman to sound unhinged and immediately discount the credibility of her argument. It’s a form of tone policing and gaslighting, and it can end up silencing women’s opinions when they’re inconvenient for the receiver.
Replacement: Possesses leadership skills
Being aggressive is considered an admirable trait for men in the workplace because it shows “leadership abilities.” But when it comes to women and being aggressive, it’s a negative trait that signifies too much anger. Because of this, women tend to not apply to jobs that advertise aggressiveness as a preferred trait. So, for example, when Goldman Sachs removed the word “aggressive” from their job ads, the hiring of women increased dramatically. Shocker.
Ramifications of coded language
If an employee is repeatedly singled out or targeted with coded language, it can start to affect their perception of themselves, how their coworkers perceive them, and even how many opportunities for promotions and raises they receive.
In job descriptions, coded language has the ability to perpetuate the cycle of “bro culture” by discouraging women from applying to jobs in male-dominated fields. It causes companies to lose out on hiring top talent, since a 2020 McKinsey survey revealed that 39 percent of respondents said they’d abandoned a potential job opportunity because they felt that the organization wasn’t inclusive.
In performance reviews, coded language is especially damaging to an employee’s self-esteem and career growth opportunities. Say you’re constantly being called “emotional” by your boss...You may start to second guess your contributions at work and wonder if you shouldn’t speak up as much.
What’s more, coded language affects the way we view people who are different from us in the long term. Alex Kapitan, an editor and consultant, says “when we use particular language for a particular group of people, and that language is different than the way that we talk about other groups of people, that reinforces the sorts of biases that are baked into that language.”
How to eliminate coded language
There are a few ways to be more intentional and thoughtful with the language we use in the workplace.
When it comes to performance evaluations and feedback, specificity is key. In general, feedback for women tends to be more vague than it is for men. Individualized, actionable feedback minimizes the risk of relying on coded language as a substitute for specific comments. And in job descriptions, avoid personality and communication style descriptors since these are the areas where gender and racial bias normally creep in.
McCormick says that to truly move toward eliminating coded language from our vocabulary, it’ll take education and intention on behalf of every individual to assess their current vocabulary and take stock of what words don’t actively support the inclusion goals of their workplaces.
“Leaders must focus on creating a culture that teaches its people how to take inventory of this language, and more so, how to speak up when they hear others using coded language. Many organizations made grand pledges and commitments last summer, but few have found ways to translate how that shows up in the day-to-day to ensure that they are creating a sustaining anti-bias and inclusive workplace.”
About our source
Meghan McCormick has been working in the advertising industry for 14 years, and in 2019, she took her passion for building teams and made the switch from social media marketing to recruiting. As a recruiter, she's passionate about partnering with hiring managers and organizations to reduce bias and make the interview process more equitable. She is also a founding member of Allies in Recruiting (AIR), a collective of advertising and marketing industry recruiters who believe in creating diverse and equitable workforces.