Labels! Labels! Labels!


No I am not talking about our consumerist obsession for branded goods and designer everything. I am referring to labels of a social kind – stereotyping. In a local context, you’ve probably heard this common stereotype where Asians are perceived as hard and effective workers, but are not outgoing. It has been found that labelling people is a way in which we categorise chunks of information and we literally label people as we meet them. It is a common human error and the truth is that we are all guilty of this ‘lazy social habit’. To demonstrate – which ethnic group is full of really smart people? Unless your answer was ‘none,’ you just made use of a stereotype

What are stereotypes?

Stereotypes are assumptions made about a group of people and are applied to individuals irrespective of their personal characteristics because of their affiliation with said group. Stereotypes can be positive, negative, or neutral, but no matter the type, it’s important to use extreme caution around stereotypes, especially in the workplace.

Stereotyping in the Workplace

The workplace is a social landscape in which we will likely meet people from all walks of life. While diversity in the workplace sometimes creates friction and problems due to differences in gender, age, personalities and culture, it also benefits an organisation by providing a variety of ideas, vision, styles, creativity, innovation, experiences and so on.

People use stereotypes to make decisions about co-workers or managers with little or no information about the person. A stereotyped person is not seen for who she is and what she can contribute to the business. If it is possible at all to avoid or reduce stereotyping in the workplace, many areas of organisational activity could thrive better. For example, employees may engage more actively in citizenship behaviours (OCBs), the enhancement of social capital within the company, unbiased leadership, improve work processes especially in teams, a happier working environment, etc.

Why do we want to want to avoid social labelling in the workplace?

Many of the most common stereotypes are derogatory. At times, social stereotyping may lead to prejudice behaviour and discrimination. Instead of giving people the equal opportunity to prove their personal worth we assign a predefined label to them. Such behaviour is deconstructive in the workplace as it instils negativity and unfair criticism. When stereotypes persist in the workplace, candidates for promotion may be overlooked, work teams do not function properly and the corporate culture erodes.

On an individual level, it directly hampers an individual’s ability to develop personal relationships and networking skills. In a simple example, imagine getting a new coworker who graduated from a different university. If you make assumptions about your new colleague based on the stereotypes affiliated with that person’s university, you might start off with a hostile and unfriendly relationship, which could significantly impede your ability to work together. However, if you were to get to know your new coworker as an individual, you would be able either to put aside any differences for the sake of productivity or to learn some new perspectives and build a strong relationship built on mutual understanding.

Stereotypes limit management’s ability to make best use of their employees’ skills and help them develop new skills. If a manager sees Tom as an Asian person who is good with numbers but not people, he may never be given the opportunity to develop his people skills and may eventually leave the company due to lack of opportunities. Stereotypes affect employee morale and productivity and ultimately turnover rate.

Additionally, it also hinders open communication and teamwork and lead to a perception of ‘us and them’ or ‘cliques’ in which members guard information, using it as a form of power. Failing to manage and include diverse employee perspectives and skills limits the company’s creativity, problem solving and competitive abilities.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

Breaking down, recognizing, and eliminating stereotypes begins with dialogue. Conversation reduces bias because we learn more about each other and reach an understanding. Conversation also reduces preconceptions by educating us on misinformation and it limits the spread of bias.

There are also other ways to eliminate stereotypes such as…

  • Respect and appreciate others’ differences. Imagine if people looked and acted the same. It would be boring!
  • Consider what you have common with other people — lots more than you think.
  • Develop empathy for the others. Try to walk in their shoes.
  • Educate yourself about different cultures and groups because expressing a stereotype about someone in front of your co-workers might even make you seem narrow-minded and judgemental

An Example of Workplace Stereotype

Baby Boomer vs. Generation Y: As the population ages, more and more people are choosing to work much longer in their careers. The Baby Boomer generation hasn’t grown up with technology as the Generation Y workers. So there is a tension between the tried and true ways of doing business versus the technological solutions of today. This generational gap can create serious friction in the work place. But instead of immediately stereotyping the individual, you should get to know the other person and appreciate each others strengths. Learn from each other.


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