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How are stereotypes harming the workplace?

Published on November 7th, 2022

How are stereotypes harming the workplace?  blog image

‘The Chinese are great at math.’  

‘The Germans are so punctual.’  

‘Women are so more empathetic than men’ 

‘Gay men have such good dress sense.’ 

‘Refugees just want welfare checks’ 

We are surrounded by stereotypes in the workplace. They are often the way we group people together that don’t look or sound like us. They don’t always appear negative and are not always deliberate. Although in both cases, they can be.

What is a stereotype?

A stereotype is an over-simplified attribute applied to a group or a member of a group. It is a symptom of lazy thinking and, even when used with a positive meaning, undermines a person’s individuality, reduces them to a two-dimensional identity and imposes an external judgement on them that they are expected to conform to. 

The use of stereotypes, regardless of positive intent, is a form of discriminatory behavior and it’s damaging your workplace culture. 

Deconstructing stereotypes

Stereotypes are conscious and unconscious, but they say more about the person that relies on them than the object of the stereotype.  Let’s take the first one as an example and break it down. 

‘The Chinese are great at math.’ 

Math ability

It is nearly impossible to prove any difference in the ability in a particular school subject between national or ethnic groups. The large number of factors governing student success make a comparison quite hard to do. And comparisons with restricted countries such as China are even harder.  

Around 85% of American children graduate from high school, compared to an estimated 60% from Chinese high schools. So if we compare these statistics, it would appear that Americans are better at most subjects than the Chinese. However, Chinese students in foreign universities tend to outperform their local equivalents – probably because you need an above-average level to make studying abroad worthwhile. 

The Chinese

Characterizing nearly 20% of the world’s population by a single comparative seems simplistic. 1.7 billion people all share a freakishly natural aptitude for one skill? It seems unlikely. But then, what do we mean by ‘The Chinese’? There are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China and several more unofficial ones. Are we just talking about Chinese born and bred in China, or do we include the diaspora? What about ethnically Chinese people who were born outside of China? What about mixed race children? 

Math

As someone with a social sciences background, I must be careful talking about math – but it’s a huge subject. Are we talking about all math? Or just one specific area? Are some Chinese good at algebra and others at trigonometry? I may, of course, be betraying my ignorance already! 

Stereotypes in the workplace

The stereotype is clearly wrong. But what does that mean for us at work? Is it just a curiosity, or something we need to deal with? 

Let’s consider why we stereotype as a starting point. We use stereotypes for two reasons: 

  • As a deliberate way to put someone in their place 
  • A symptom of lazy thinking 

Deliberate discrimination 

If stereotypes are deliberate then you have a serious problem. They are deliberate microaggressions that represent bullying and discrimination of the most hurtful kind. A deliberate stereotype demeans an individual and forces them to accept the identity that the bully imposes on them. If they try to counter the stereotype, they are labelled as weird or odd; if they conform they buckle to the verbal violence of the oppressor.  

The language I am using is deliberately direct. Stereotypes are a weapon of discrimination that when deployed deliberately are an act of asserting power over a seemingly-weaker person. 

The impact of this is that the work culture is toxic. Gifted employees will leave, less gifted employees will either remain silent or will join in the bullying. The American hockey team, Chicago Blackhawks were a team destroyed by workplace bullying. A culture of homophobia, discrimination, putting down and toxic discipline ruined the reputation of one of the most prominent hockey teams. 

The lawsuits and structural reorganizations and payouts have put a huge cost on the deliberate discrimination in that dressing room! 

Lazy thinking

Unfortunately, in many ways, the lazy thinking stereotype is even worse. It is symptomatic of people making judgements and decisions based on false or unreliable data. Imagine that your key engineer bases a production decision on data that just doesn’t represent reality. Lazy thinking is just as damaging to your culture as deliberate discrimination, but is less noticeable. It can be almost acceptable to some people – just part of the regular banter and gossip of a workplace. 

But the impact is the same – people don’t feel valued or respected. They choose not to contribute proactively because they don’t have relationships with their co-workers; they know that their managers see them in a certain way and aren’t open to changing their perspectives. 

In workplaces that lack inclusion, the number of sick days is significantly higher, retention is lower and collaboration is harder. What business can afford to ignore disengaged employees? 

But it’s not just your employees that suffer. Your customers will see through your stereotypes as well. Stereotypes have seen a huge backlash in marketing campaigns, where customers have rebelled against the lazy thinking that tries to exploit a stereotype to sell. It can significantly harm your brand reputation if you get it wrong. If your customers don’t think they’re being treated as individuals, they’ll go somewhere else. And if your customers go, your investors and shareholders start to reconsider as well! 

Debunking stereotypes

Here are three suggestions to help you remove stereotypes. 

  • Doublecheck 

Whenever a statement is made about a group, challenge yourself to examine – why do I think that? How did I come to that conclusion? What is the objective evidence for that claim?  

When you hear other people relying on stereotypes, don’t let them pass uncommented and unchallenged. 

  • Reporting 

If your organization doesn’t have an anonymous reporting mechanism, you may not know that you have a problem. There are many products available which allow employees to submit anonymous or named complaints or reports of offensive behavior. The results are often painful initially, but will allow leaders to pinpoint problem areas and deal with them quickly and effectively before your reputation and culture is irreparably damaged 

  • Education 

Many people are not aware that some of the ‘facts’ they rely on are in fact stereotypes. Having honest discussions and training can go a long way to opening the eyes of people who have no idea they are offending others. Training should be targeted and focused on the issues in your workplace and should include everyone. 

Part of that education should be help in creating a culture of psychological safety so that people are safe to be their authentic self at work, without fear of judgement, ridicule or even misunderstanding. 

One of the biggest changes in the workplaces has happened in the last five years as we have come to understand the importance of inclusion. Getting inclusion right can radically and dramatically improve your work culture and the employee and customer experience. 


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