Watch the Use of Stereotypes in the Workplace

by | Oct 2, 2023 | I-O Psychology, Workplace Culture | 0 comments

Oops… your unfair bias may be showing

Have you ever engaged someone in conversation and heard a stereotype about someone’s culture, ethnicity, gender, or other characteristic? When I hear these things, I sometimes find myself muttering, “We’re not in grammar school anymore; even today’s youths don’t talk like this.” I suppose that the younger generations have done a little more growing up than some of my Gen-X and Boomer peers.

We all carry with us some form of bias due to our social-cultural backgrounds and environments. However, categorizing people by their race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, or disability may not only demonstrate insensitivity and crude behavior, it could lead to illegal discrimination according to laws enforced by the EEOC (2022). Executives who lack discretion and who engage in using stereotypes may believe they can show they have some deep understanding of people under the guise of demographics. However, they may end up, instead, offending others and demonstrating offensive or illegal behaviors.

Why do stereotypes exist?

People tend to like to associate with people who have similar qualities to themselves. At work, in certain environments, people tend to gravitate toward others who share social-cultural, ethnic, interest-based, or other backgrounds. They may categorize other people in outgroups by various labels, thus making assumptions about the people within outgroups, resulting in stereotypes. Research has demonstrated that diverse workgroups tend to lack cohesiveness, experience negative conflict, and have lower team performance (Bauer et al., 2020). However, when organizations develop cultures of inclusivity, the benefits of different viewpoints and perspectives become assets to the organization. Inclusive environments treat all members of groups with dignity and respect and include them in decision-making processes. This inclusivity can help workgroups to function, but it can also attract a larger, more diverse audience of prospective customers.

A significant challenge to inclusivity stems from social identity theory, which states that people like to interact with people similar to them in their social ingroups and favor those people over those from outgroups (King & Gilrane, 2015). People are attracted to the others within these ingroups due to similarities, including similar experiences such as going to the same school, sharing the same ethnicity or nationality, and being of the same gender. While belonging to these ingroups can foster cohesion, certain CWBs (counterproductive work behaviors) can arise, including incivility to others and biased decision-making.

Organizations also face the challenge of unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias. This bias occurs in individuals based on their cultural experiences and develops prejudices against marginalized groups (McCombs School of Business, 2018). People tend to favor stereotypes regarding one’s ingroup favorably, but those people also tend to have negative stereotypes about people outside of their favored group. The McCombs School of Business points out that, while implicit bias may cause problems, it may not significantly impact the way people act every day insofar as tests such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT) may not accurately predict how any person will behave around those in outgroups, though they could predict how groups may behave generally.

Issues with stereotypes and implicit bias among leadership

High-level executives accept several risks when discussing stereotypes in the workplace out loud. These risks include:

  • Creating a hostile work environment. Discussing stereotypes in the workplace can create a hostile work environment for employees who are members of the stereotyped group or who have friends or family within that group. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, stress, and isolation, and it can lead to employees leaving the company.
  • Inhibiting employee performance. When people gain awareness of a negative stereotype about their group, they may feel very threatened. This awareness can lead to anxiety and apprehension, which can impair cognitive performance. In the workplace, this can lead to employees underperforming or avoiding challenging tasks.
  • Reinforcing negative stereotypes. When leaders express their thoughts and feelings in a stereotypical manner, they may reinforce these stereotypes in the minds of employees. This can lead to employees making decisions and taking actions based on these stereotypes, which can perpetuate discrimination and inequality among coworkers and customers.
  • Damage to the company’s reputation. If it becomes known that high-level executives discuss stereotypes in the workplace, the organization can suffer irreparable damage the company’s reputation. This can make it more difficult for the company to attract and retain top talent, Furthermore, this behavior can damage the company’s relationships with customers and partners.
  • Lost revenue or growth opportunities. Some organizational leaders join industry or community organizations to further the influence of the company and to perform community outreach. However, when an organization gains a reputation for cultural insensitivity, the company and/or the executive may lose status or membership, resulting in lost costs of finances, opportunities, and relationships.

For these reasons, high-level executives should avoid discussing stereotypes in the workplace. If stereotypes do need to be discussed, because the First Amendment protects their right to do so, they may choose to express their thoughts in a respectful and sensitive manner and outside of the workplace to avoid creating a hostile work environment.

I offer here some tips for discussing stereotypes in the workplace in a respectful and sensitive way:

  • Mind your words. Choose your words carefully when discussing stereotypes, and avoid using offensive or discriminatory language.
  • Respect all viewpoints. Listen to the perspectives of others and adopt a mindset of openness to learn about different experiences.
  • Focus on the individual. Avoid making generalizations about entire groups of people; each individual has his/her/their own story.
  • Exercise awareness of the power dynamics in the workplace. Consider how your words might impact people who are members of marginalized groups.
  • Institute training and development. Bring a training program to your workplace to help reduce the threat posed by stereotypes.
  • Create a supportive work environment. Provide employees with opportunities to act as role models and mentors and create a culture of inclusion and respect.

By following these tips, you can help to create a workplace where everyone feels respected and valued, regardless of their background or identity.

References

Bauer T., Erdogan B. & Caughlin D. E. (2020). Human Resource Management: People Data and Analytics. SAGE Publications.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S. (1978). Uniform guidelines on employment selection procedures (EEOC Publication №43 FR 38295, 38312, Aug. 25, 1978). Washington, DC: Government Publishing Office.

King, E. & Gilrane, V. (2015). Social Science Strategies for Managing Diversity: Industrial and Organizational Opportunities to Enhance Inclusion. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP).

McCombs School of Business. (2018). Implicit Bias | Concepts Unwrapped. Center for Leadership and Ethics at The University of Texas at Austin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoBvzI-YZf4

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