Evolving Beyond “Dear Sirs”

Alison, October 7, 2019

Early in my career, I was always surprised to receive correspondence from other lawyers, addressed to me, that started “Dear Sirs” (yes, plural). The “Dear Sirs” salutation originated at a time when lawyers were men and law firms were managed by them. However, at the time when the correspondence was sent to me, the greeting was outdated, and excluded anyone who was not a “sir”. I am happy to report that I have not seen correspondence addressed this way for many years.

Language in the workplace continues to change and evolve. A couple of years ago, people didn’t know the meanings of “gender fluid” and “cisgender”, or what the letters of the LGBTQ+ spectrum stood for. People were unsure how to refer to an Indigenous person, or speak with someone with a mental health issue, let alone ask them about their condition.

However, changes to legislation, such as the 2012 changes to the Human Rights Code, which introduced gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds, and the 2010 amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, through Bill 168, which incorporated protections against harassment in the workplace, mean that employers have to educate employees about using appropriate and inclusive language in their spoken and written communications.

Recently, I came across a number of guidelines and handbooks produced by Canadian public sector employers, primarily governments, universities, colleges, school boards, municipalities and towns, that address using inclusive language in the workplace. These guidelines reinforce that employees still need information and guidance about how to be more inclusive and provide awareness and examples of how to communicate more inclusively. They provide information about uncovering unconscious biases, embedded metaphors, and stereotypes in workplace communications. Most importantly, they recognize that ideas and practices based on the norms of the dominant culture can result in experiences of exclusion and discrimination for employees from diverse backgrounds. Inclusive language, by contrast, embraces diversity.

Some examples include referring to:

  • positions, not people. For example, “foreperson”, not “foreman”, “Chair” not “Chairman”, and “workforce” or “staff” rather than “manpower”
  • “women” and “men” and not “girls” or “boys”
  • “spouses” or “partners” rather than “husband and wife” or “boyfriend and girlfriend”
  • “employee with a disability” rather than “handicapped” or a “disabled employee”
  • “a person who has diabetes” rather than “a diabetic”
  • “a person who is Muslim” rather than “the Muslim”

These publications dovetail the Code and OHSA principles and proactively address the employer’s obligation to provide employees with a workplace that is free from harassment and discrimination.
Like employers, some cities, such as Vancouver and Saskatoon, have approved amendments to their codes and bylaws by replacing gender-specific words with gender-neutral terms. They get it. As the Mayor of Saskatoon said, “It’s 2019 and we’re wanting to keep up with the times. Keep up with different legislation and human rights legislation and also just the overall understanding of how you create a city that everyone feels welcome”. Cities, like Berkeley, California, have replaced words like “manhole” and “manpower” with gender-neutral terms.

Take away

Using inclusive language in the workplace is not hard, but it takes mindfulness, awareness, and practice to choose language that is inclusive to all. Let’s work on inclusive language and make sure the “Dear Sirs” remains a greeting of the past.

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