Some commonly used words or phrases have racist, sexist, or homophobic origins. Identifying and eliminating these terms from our vocabulary isn’t just an exercise in virtue-signaling “wokeness.” Rather, it’s a tangible action that makes our workplaces more comfortable for historically underrepresented groups who may be uncomfortable with these terms. For a variety of reasons, people may not want to voice that discomfort – or they aren’t accommodated when they do.

One such word is “grandfathering.”   

“Grandfathering” is a common business terminology that can be found everywhere. That includes HealthCare.gov, which refers to “grandfathered” health plans as those purchased outside of the Affordable Care Act before 2010. When people or companies are grandfathered, they are allowed to continue following an existing set of rules, even after new rules are put in place, or are granted an exempt status of some kind or are preapproved to participate in a program. While it seems harmless enough, the word’s darker origins ought to deter us from using this phrase.

Although the 15th Amendment gave Black American men the right to vote in 1870, some states instituted poll taxes and literacy tests to make voting difficult for Black people. Since banning Black people from voting had become illegal, some states worked around this by passing a “grandfather clause,” which made men eligible to vote if they had been able to vote before Black Americans were legally able to vote – or if they were the descendants of a voter. In short, if you were White, you were “grandfathered” in to being allowed to vote. With this dark origin, there’s no wonder there’s a quiet shift away from this term. 

What To Say Instead

Companies prioritizing inclusiveness can encourage a move away from problematic terms in materials and/or learning sessions – recognizing that calling out the need for change isn’t about shaming but about removing barriers to productivity and success. Inclusive replacements companies may use instead “grandfathered” include “exempted,” “excused,” “preapproved,” “preauthorized,” or “legacied.”

As Maya Angelou so gracefully said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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