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Words have power: four things to consider to make your company policies more inclusive

Words have power: four things to consider to make your company policies more inclusive

My name is Ben, my pronouns are he/him and I am a cis-male who lives in Melbourne. I am also a Thoughtworker. I tend to call myself a “product shaped human being” because I like to solve problems for people by building things that make their lives better.


About six months ago, I talked to some members of the Australian leadership team about the challenges people were having with working remotely during the pandemic and how we might lose some of the “special sauce” that the Thoughtworks culture is known for if we didn't think about how we adapt to the new world that was emerging in front of us. I pitched the idea that we needed to make sure people truly feel they belong at Thoughtworks, whether that be through, their role, their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion or beliefs - and the intersections between those things.


The leadership team took on my wild idea and we created the role of the Belonging Lead. The goal of this role was to help increase the sense of belonging of Thoughtworkers. And the investment has started to pay off; our annual DEI survey showed an increase in the belonging driver statement from 7.9 in 2020 to 8.5 in 2022.  We also saw a lower rate of Thoughtworkers leaving us for other opportunities.


One of the initiatives has been to review all of our policies to make sure that they are both representative of how things are now but to really challenge the essence of what they are to make them as inclusive as possible. One of the major policies that people look to is a parental leave policy, which we have now changed to a ‘Growing Your Family’ policy that is more inclusive and flexible to meet the real world that Thoughtworkers live in.


Going through the process of making something as dry as a policy document more inclusive and better articulate the culture we strive for can be hard, so I wanted to share some things you should consider when looking to refresh your policies.



1) Visibility is important, clarity is better 


It can be easy to just go through an organization’s policies and remove all the gendered pronouns, gender-specific language and hetronormative examples and references. But the unfortunate side effect of that is it can lead to ambiguity.


Consider how you can still represent specific groups of people in your policies -  how would you define terms in a way that is inclusive without perpetuating stereotypes? For a large number of marginalized communities, not seeing themselves represented in a policy will lead to questions about whether a policy is applicable to them in their circumstance, creating a barrier to accessing the benefits of knowing the implications.


For example, we used the below as our definition of ‘Family’:


When people describe families they generally refer to them as the nuclear family of a male parent, a female parent and one or multiple kids.  We don’t believe that there is such a thing as a ‘normal’ family and as such this policy doesn’t keep within these bounds.  

A family shares emotional bonds, common values, goals and responsibilities and family members contribute significantly to the wellbeing of each other.  This will look different to lots of people however visibility matters so a non-exhaustive list of examples include:

  • Single parent families

  • Families with no children

  • Same sex parents and LGBT+ rainbow families

  • Blended families

  • Polyamorous relationships


  • Families created through longer term fostering arrangements or adoption



2) Challenge stereotypes and your assumptions


Our original policy referred to ‘the mother or father’, however as we all know, there are many different shapes and sizes of families these days. By really focussing on what assumptions were underpinning the policy and the wording, we reframed how the policy might be understood by someone reading it or accessing its benefits. 


We changed definitions to something that allowed for people to see what role they played rather than the attributes of that role such as gender or sex.


For example, we came up with the roles or primary or secondary carers instead of mother/father:


Primary Carer

A primary carer is the person who at a certain point in time has the main responsibility of taking care of the physical needs of a child who has joined your family.  There can only be one Primary Carer for a child at the same time.

Secondary Carer

A secondary carer is someone who is not the primary carer of the child but still provides care for a child. 



3) Write down what you actually do


It’s easy for policies to be a document that exists but doesn't actually represent the will of an organization. Whilst re-writing this policy we asked ourselves the question, “Is that what we would actually do if a Thoughtworker came to us for help or are we just writing a catch all statement?”. We deeply questioned what was stopping us from putting down what we would actually do to support Thoughtworkers in writing and incorporating it into the policy. We wanted this to truly represent what we would do in these situations and make it clear what support was available. This process helped us remove whole paragraphs or write things in more simple terms that would give someone reading the policy a much clearer guide or point of reference.


We have a great range of allowances and benefits as Thoughtworkers so we made sure to clarify that this would continuing to be available to a Thoughtworker who was availing themselves of leave rather than leave it up to someone to have to work out whether they would still have access to these benefits.


A quote from our policy:

When your child arrives it will no doubt be a world of change and new experiences, we want to ensure that you have the ability to stay connected.

  • Thoughtworks will continue to pay your superannuation contribution during your Thoughtworks funded paid parental leave and up to 6 months of unpaid parental leave as further set out in the Superannuation Contribution Policy

  • Thoughtworks will continue to pay the Communications Allowance benefit

  • Thoughtworks will continue to make the Personal Development Budget, Book & Technology Allowance and Wellness Allowance benefit available to you 

  • Thoughtworks will include you in any Pay Review that falls due during your leave period

  • An open invitation to Thoughtworks social events during the time of your leave

  • 10 Keeping in Touch Days which allows for paid work days during unpaid parental leave to stay up to date with your workplace, refresh your skills and assist with the transition back to work.


Note: this is an excerpt of the policy and not inclusive of all benefits available to a Thoughtworker



4) Measure, learn, update


One other reflection from this process was to consider how these policies became something with a regular cadence of measure-learn-update to ensure that they still remained relevant and useful and we didn’t rest on work that we did years prior.


With any policy, you should consider how you are measuring its success - are your people using the policy to help them make decisions? Are your people making use of the benefits or guidelines without having to ask questions to clarify?

We took a test and learn approach and put the policy in front of a number of Thoughtworkers to ‘user test’ it.  We gathered the feedback and incorporated that into the next iteration of the policy. Our plan is to continue to measure the policy's success as it becomes part of our business and we build further on the foundations we have laid based on the business direction, market conditions for talent and feedback from Thoughtworkers.


Making sure that employees feel like they belong encompasses so much of how a business operates and this is only one example, however, it is a solid action that can really set the tone for how your organization supports your employees.


We have grand plans to expand the Growing Your Family policy even further and know that by laying this ground work, we have created a platform for all Australian Thoughtworkers who want to grow their family to feel supported to do so.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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