Some labels are important. After all, I don’t want to grab a Merlot when I’m really looking for a Pinot Noir. But other than the important ones (like those on wine bottles), I dislike labels. I don’t like the scratchy ones on the inside of my t-shirts, and I don’t like the itchy ones on my pajamas. And I especially don’t like the ones we apply to people.
So I try to avoid them. I mean, realistically not all millennials are self-absorbed, not all blondes are dumb, not all chefs are overweight, not all scientists are nerds. and so on.
Stereotyping can be dangerous, at home and at work. The risks at home are fairly obvious. When you label people in front of your kids, are you teaching them to judge people by the way they look or talk? Are you teaching them that different is wrong?
The risks of labeling in the workplace are more subtle. Colleagues and co-workers are more than just their gender or their race. They are more than their title or their experience. When we start looking for things to validate our preconceived notions, our minds begin to close. As a legal administrator back in the day, I was tasked with hiring and firing the support staff. I screened the resumes, conducted the interviews, and made the final decisions. Once when I was looking to fill the receptionist position, there was a well-dressed candidate in the lobb, and the managing partner must have gotten a glimpse of her. Before the interview, he popped into my office to tell me not to hire her because she was fat. He told me, and I am dead serious, that fat people were lazy. He must have come to that erroneous conclusion at some point in his life, and after that his mind closed. (By the way, she was over-qualified and although I offered her the job, she ultimately declined.)
There are lots of examples of labeling in the workplace. If you’re a mother, you might be judged for staying home to take care of a sick kid. If you’re single, you might be prejudged as a player. If you’re struggling to make ends meet you might be more inclined to work overtime, perhaps making your married, dual-income co-worker judge you because she feels insecure. Your age might have something to do with false labeling in the workplace. Do millennials who live with their parents need lower salaries than baby boomers? These are all erroneous conclusions that close our minds.
How can we avoid the stereotype trap? First, try adding the word “some” to your observations. Some mothers take off work when their kids are sick, but not all of them. Some single people party every weekend, but others do not.
Better yet, catch yourself when you start to label. Instead of referring to your neighbor by his race, try using his name. Your gay friends are simply your friends, right? Diversity is interesting. Respecting our differences and keeping an open mind by choosing not to label is something I strive to do.