Sincerely, Leaders of Color: Let’s talk about hurtful corporate speak

Here are a few phrases you should stop using immediately, and some alternatives you can inject into your daily conversations.

If you can’t believe anyone would say those things, let me know what utopia you work at, because I’ve heard them in every organization I’ve worked for and collaborated with, almost every conference I’ve attended, and quite a few of the trainings I’ve been part of.” - Tony Elkins

About this series: Sincerely, Leaders of Color is written for everyone in the journalism industry who cares about creating a more supportive environment for journalists of color to do their best work. Have a question for the team? Drop it here and watch for it in a future column.

A few SLOC columns ago, Brian De Los Santos wrote about references and inclusion, and how easy it is to alienate people who don’t share your point of reference. I’ve been thinking about that column a lot lately.

The news innovation and product spaces are rife with coded references, jargon and acronyms. Do you know if your product team is agile, waterfall, scrum, or kanban? Did your team hit all their OKRs and KPIs in time to release their MVP? Did your empathy maps and customer journeys give you enough metrics to calculate a LTV?

Those of us in the space take for granted that everyone knows what we’re talking about. I’ve certainly been guilty of this. During a recent onboarding for a newsroom tool my team built, I said “MVP” in reference to our launch. An attendee was very confused and spoke up asking what I meant.

I explained the product process and how an MVP, or minimum viable product, was the first working version we release to users in order to get feedback (user-testing) and make improvements (iteration). She thanked us for explaining it, saying she had heard the term in several meetings, but knew it couldn’t be Most Valuable Person in the context it was being used for.

I’m glad the person asked the question. It’s something few of us are comfortable doing. I’ve nodded my head along in too many meetings while glancing around wondering if anyone else knew that the hell the speaker was saying.

Phrases and jargon are the secret handshake of the business and tech world. If you know, you know. If you speak the language, you’re in. More than that, the words and phrases can be used to obfuscate our true intentions.

I’ve desperately tried to stop using them. And that’s made me even more aware of the words I speak, and the words those around me speak.

And it’s scary.

Just past the surface of jargon and acronyms are the incredibly invisible, hurtful phrases people say without a second thought.

As a citizen of the Comanche tribe, I’ve heard them my entire career.

  • Rule-breakers are “going off reservation.”
  • Meetings are ‘powwows.”
  • We have “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” in reference to managers and not enough workers.
  • It’s time to “circle the wagons” and get this project done.
  • Something-or-other is my “spirit animal.”
  • Recent hires are the “lowest man on the totem pole.”

If you can’t believe anyone would say those things, let me know what utopia you work at, because I’ve heard them in every organization I’ve worked for and collaborated with, almost every conference I’ve attended, and quite a few of the trainings I’ve been part of.

It’s not that the people saying them are racist. I doubt most of them even know it’s offensive — but now you know. Few probably know what they are referencing because the words have become ingrained in American popular culture — you can’t watch any spy-thriller without some agent going “off the reservation.”

When people say “circle the wagons” they mean to huddle up, put your heads down, and get to the work at hand. Native people see images of Conestoga wagons in a circle, settlers cowering in fear of marauding tribes before John Wayne, and the cavalry ride in to save the day.

For the longest time, I did nothing. Maybe I’d roll my eyes or sigh under my breath. But that’s not fair to me or the people saying it.

And before you even read the next sentence, I know. It’s tiring. We’re all tired of having to be the ones to educate. But I’ve started having conversations with people to put an end to it. I hope by informing those around me, it stops.

I usually don’t call people out mid-meeting. It’s not my intent to embarrass or belittle. I usually send a DM afterwards asking to have a conversation. I repeat what they said, what the phrase references, and why it shouldn’t be used anymore. Every single time it’s happened the other person has said they were completely unaware they said it, or the meaning behind it. They have all said thanks for letting them know.

And this is just my own little corner of the world. I’m guilty of these things myself. Just this week I said, “We will need more manpower …” when talking about a project.

To an online-meeting room full of women.

I heard the word come out of my mouth, stopped the meeting and said I should have not used the word. I should have just said “we will need more people to work on this.” Besides not being gendered, it helps to remind us there’s actual humans doing the work.

There’s so many exclusionary, misogynistic, and racist business phrases built into corporate jargon. When I made my career transition from the newsroom to project management I knew what it felt like to be excluded from the conversation by a lack of understanding. As a Native, I know the anger of having your people boiled down to stereotypes.

As a Leader of Color, I hope those that come after me don’t have the same experience. Spaces like this column are what the industry needs. By sharing our experiences and knowledge we can build a better, more inclusive journalism community.

Your Burning Questions


What are some steps I can take to make sure I don’t use a hurtful or exclusionary term?


  • First, create an environment or team culture where people feel empowered to have these types of conversations. Be transparent about what you expect from them and for them.
  • For yourself, seek constant feedback. Ask your team if you used too much jargon, said something that could be offensive, or if you used the wrong tone (I would love a future SLOC column to talk about tone).


How do I approach someone if I want to have a conversation with them about a phrase or word they used?


  • The most important thing is knowing if it was unintentional or misinformed versus intentional or knowingly harmful. If you suspect the latter, go to your manager or HR. This behavior is not acceptable and should be dealt with immediately.
  • If you want to have a conversation with someone, be upfront about why. Start your conversation with “I noticed you said something in your presentation and I would like to talk to you about it.”
  • Almost all the conversations I have had have been good, but prepare yourself for negative outcomes. Prepare to leave the conversation if you don’t feel safe. Then speak with your manager or HR.

Tony Elkins
Sr. Director / Content Innovation for Gannett

This is a guest column, solicited by P. Kim Bui and Emma Carew Grovum and edited by Kim. We want to make sure to include voices from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. If you’re interested in guest writing, or have someone you’d love to hear from, let us know here.

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  • Tony Elkins

    Tony Elkins is a Sr. Director for Content Innovation at Gannett, focusing on using design-thinking and product management to help build better products, tools and systems for journalists in the USA TODAY Network. He is also the creative director for the News Product Alliance and hopes his “How I …” series shows the community there are many career paths to entering news product. Tony previously served as a designer, art director, reporter and managing editor before making the switch to product. He lives in Austin, Tx with his wife Jennifer and dog Korra. He’d rather be camping in the mountains. He can be reached here.


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