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What Is Workplace Stereotyping?
Your boss informed you that they need your assistance in training a new hire, Carlos Uceda, in two weeks. Stop right there. What went through your mind when you read the new hire’s name? Did you make any assumptions about the person based on their name? To process all the information you’re exposed to on a daily basis, your brain creates shortcuts, which are called stereotypes.
Workplace stereotyping is a fixed, overgeneralized belief about a person or group of people. This stereotype may be based on your past experience with someone of a similar age, gender, ethnicity, background, education, etc., or your cultural biases and prejudices (which we all have).
While grouping things that are similar is helpful when sorting an enormous amount of information, organizations, leaders, and employees need to learn how to question their assumptions. One person does not represent all the demographic categories they pertain to. In other words, just because you have had an experience with one person from a certain religion, ethnicity, age group, gender, sexual orientation, etc., does not mean that you have met them all.
If you’re starting to search your memory for when you have stereotyped people, let’s slow down a little bit. Stereotyping isn’t inherently good or bad; it all comes down to what we do with it. All of us have stereotypes— they’re a result of being human—and the goal of this article is to increase awareness rather than perfection.
What Are the Effects of Workplace Stereotyping?
Workplace stereotyping has short and long-term consequences. Let’s review three effects.
- Culture. Your company culture has a substantial impact on profitability. Workplace stereotypes are a massive roadblock to improving your culture because it hampers employees’ sense of belonging at the company.
- Talent. Stereotyping can prevent hiring managers from finding the best candidate for the job or prevent applicants from even wanting to apply to your positions. Candidates often screen companies using various websites to get an insider view before applying. Here are a few things they will take notice of.
- Are all senior leadership one gender or ethnicity?
- Are all the pictures of one ethnic group, or is there diversity?
- They might review your company’s LinkedIn account to get a feel for how long people stay at the company. If they find someone similar to them, they may reach out about the employee’s experience of working for you.
- There are many company review websites that allow candidates to read employee or previous employees’ comments about working for the company and how they felt about leadership.
- Legal. If workplace stereotypes go unchecked, they can lead to workplace discrimination. Being sued for workplace discrimination takes time and financial resources and damages your company’s image.
Examples of Workplace Stereotyping
Let’s review four examples of what workplace stereotyping might look like. While it isn’t possible to cover every possible situation, you can identify common characteristics that might help you identify workplace stereotyping in your company. (See how that sentence is an example of how grouping similarities is useful to us as employees and leaders?)
Stereotyping a New Hire
A Senior Data Analyst, Jennifer, is asked to help orient a new data analyst, Juan. Jennifer’s manager informs her that the new hire recently graduated college and they are excited to have them join. During lunch, Jennifer complains to a coworker that she will have to teach the kid how to properly code and do quality checks. They agree that they don’t enjoy working with kids right out of college because of all their questions and poor work ethic. The last time Jennifer was asked to orient a new hire had been challenging because she felt hampered in furthering her own projects.
Do you see how this is stereotyping? Jane is making assumptions based on her last experience. She is also assuming things about Juan’s work ethic, experience, likely his age, and possibly his ethnicity.
Expectations About Leadership Roles
Corporate Engineering is hiring a Senior Vice President (SVP) to report to the CEO on the needs of their North American Operations. The SVP needs an advanced engineering degree, 10 years of experience managing global operations, and demonstrated consistent growth year over year. They will be expected to travel at least half of the year as they visit different engineering sites. After reviewing five candidates, the CEO decides to hire Jane Doe.
While reading the job responsibilities, who did you imagine in your mind might fill this role? Were they male or female, and why? The point of this section was to have you question your own assumptions that might lead you to have a workplace stereotype.
Stereotyping based on Work History
Jacob has worked in a call center for three years. He recently applied to be a finance analyst at the same company. What is your initial thought on Jacob’s application? Let’s slow down and review the rest of his application. He:
- Graduated in finance a month ago from a community college
- Completed two part-time internships that lasted three months each
- In his cover letter, Jacob gives suggestions on how to improve call center retention and an idea for product changes to fulfill customers’ requests more efficiently.
How do you feel about Jacob’s application now that we slowed down and got more information? Recruiters and hiring managers skim through resumes to select whom to interview. Without digging deeper into Jacob, it would be easy to put him on the reject pile and move on. The key is to slow down and seek more information to combat your stereotypes.
The CEO of Company Fantastic informs their quality, call center, and human resources directors that they have hired an external consultant to improve efficiency. Their assigned consultant, Chen Li, will be visiting next week to observe current operations. The three directors, Sarah, Joseph and Katie, begin preparing.
Sarah, Joseph, and Katie wonder what Chen will be like. What will he recommend that they implement in their departments? Katie comments that his name sounds Asian and that she traveled to China for two weeks on a business college trip. The managers she interacted with had high expectations of any new hire. They only wanted people to do the job they were told, not bring new ideas.
Sometimes people start forming assumptions when all they have is a name. We end up creating stories about how a person will act and what they will ask us to do, and we haven’t even met them yet. If these directors let these experiences dictate the experience, they may resist Chen Li’s recommendations or think that he (if Chen is indeed male) views business differently than they do. By letting stereotypes define how we interact with others, we rob ourselves of personal and professional growth.
How to Eliminate Stereotyping in the Workplace
Let’s talk about steps that help us reduce and eliminate stereotyping. These steps don’t require a lot of resources to be effective. You can start developing awareness by discussing it at a company meeting or having directors review the harm of workplace stereotyping. It is important to have leadership support in reducing workplace stereotyping. Eliminating workplace stereotyping isn’t an HR initiative; it needs to be a company initiative. Your employees know what is important to their bosses and take action on what their leaders ask them to do. Here are three steps you can start taking today.
The first step to eliminating stereotyping in your professional interactions and the workplace is to identify which ones you currently have. Take a moment to question your preconceived notions. Here are a few questions to get you started.
- Who are my favorite people to work with? Who are my least favorite people to work with? Why do I like or dislike working with these individuals?
- Do I provide others the benefit of the doubt to prove my preconceptions wrong, or am I falling into the trap of confirmation bias? (Confirmation bias is our tendency to interpret new information in a way that confirms what we already think.)
- What am I doing to get to know this person or department better?
Cross collaboration is one of your greatest allies in addressing workplace stereotypes. Stereotypes are based on limited interaction with a certain group. The more opportunities an individual has to interact, the greater chance they will meet a wide variety of individuals and lessen their stereotypes.
The wonderful thing about cross-collaboration is that it is strengthened by business needs. Finance, marketing, and analytics need to get together on projects. Sometimes the executive team needs to be on the floor to get a better sense of culture. If two teams never cross paths, then schedule a lunch to get them interacting. Get creative on how to strengthen cross-collaboration at your company.
All of us benefit from having reminders about how to combat stereotypes. This can be accomplished through an annual 15-30 minute training, email, manager workshop, or executive communication. Think about the best way to help your employees increase their self-awareness.
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Brent Watson enjoys problem solving, analyzing data, team building, and becoming an HR Guru. His work experience comes from the employee experience, recruiting, and training arenas. After attending a local HR conference, Brent knew that he had found his people and the problems he wanted to solve for in the business world.
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