Stereotyping is the process by which an individual looks at another person or group of people and makes a snap judgement about their abilities, intelligence, behavior, or mannerisms as a result of their outward appearance. Stereotyping is often considered to be linked with negative perceptions about an individual’s race or gender, but in reality, stereotyping can be done about any group-- and stereotyping does not have to include a negative generalization. However, generalizing about a group in a positive manner can be just as harmful to a business environment as generalizing in a negative manner. In the text Ouch! That Stereotype Hurts, Alquilar (2006) discusses some of the many ways to create a more inclusive working environment while encouraging better communicative practices between employees, regardless of race, religion, age, gender, or other defining characteristic.
Aquilar (2006) defines a stereotype as “an oversimplified image or statement applied to a whole group of people, without regard for the individual” (Aquilar, 2006). This is a particularly important definition to consider when thinking about stereotyping in the context of a business environment: one of the major considerations in business is creating a good and safe working environment for all employees, regardless of race, religion, creed, appearance, and so on. Indeed, some classes of people are even what are known as legally “protected” classes, meaning that stereotyping or acting against these groups with any kind of bias can result in serious legal issues for the business.
Because, in Alquilar’s working definition of “stereotype,” there includes a presupposition that the individual who is doing the stereotyping has a basic disregard for the feelings or cultural perceptions of the group that he or she is stereotyping. Stereotyping may, indeed, be a malicious action taken by one individual against a group that he or she dislikes; however, just as commonly in today’s society, stereotyping is an unconscious action taken by people who may well have been able to avoid the issue by performing what Alquilar terms a “bias check” when participating in official communication. According to Alquilar, the idea of a “bias” is linked inextricably to the idea of a stereotype. A bias, according to Alquilar, can be defined as “a predisposition to see events, people or items in a positive or negative way. Bias is an attitude or belief” (Alquilar, 2006). Any stereotype that exists must contain a bias, whether it is a conscious or unconscious bias against an individual or group.
Perhaps one of the most important messages sent by Alquilar’s work, Ouch! That Stereotype Hurts (2006) is the idea that inclusion of all individuals in a workplace is not necessarily something that comes without practice and attention to detail. Alquilar does not delve deeply into a discussion of privilege or privileged groups, but instead manages to suggest that all individuals in the workplace must work to avoid bias in their interactions with other individuals in the workplace.
When considering an academic discussion of stereotyping and bias in business, however, it is fundamentally important to consider the idea of privilege. Privilege is a sociological theory that certain individuals and groups are given certain advantages by society-- which groups are privileged, what these privileges are, and whether they are de facto or de jure privileges are dependent upon culture and geographical location. For the purposes of simplicity of discussion, American business will be used as a basis for this particular paper’s discussion of stereotyping and privilege.
In American business, Caucasian males are generally the privileged group. This means that all communication and opportunities that are offered consider the Caucasian male as the default; all other individuals are considered derivations from this “default.” As a result, these individuals may not receive the same opportunities that a Caucasian male would-- but not because of any conscious decision made by individuals in the business world. However, removing the positive bias for Caucasian males can be an extremely efficient way to create a better, more inclusive working environment, a goal that many companies strive towards on a daily basis.
There are ways to encourage bias-free communication in a workplace, and it is an extremely important thing to do. Without bias-free communication, certain groups or individuals may feel out of place in the workplace, without knowledge of why they feel out of place; this may lead to higher turnover of employees or even the loss of valuable employees that may otherwise have made very positive impacts on the workplace and the future of the business. Alquilar writes:
[T]ake some extra time in advance to plan for a diverse range of listeners. It’s worth it-- people have different learning styles, different physical abilities, different cultures and languages, different needs and interests. This way everyone benefits. Many factors contribute to the message of inclusion, from the bias-free language and content that you choose, to the facilitators you select and the examples you cite, to the accessibility of the location (Alquilar, 2006).
Awareness of the issue, Alquilar writes, is the first step to making a change in any business environment (Alquiar, 2006). Changes must come from the upper levels of the organization; without support of superiors and active participation, it will be extremely difficult to encourage lower-level employees to take on the kind of change that is necessary to create a workplace that is genuinely focused on eliminating stereotyping and bias from communication.
There are a few different techniques that can be used to assist individuals within a business with eliminating behavior that can be considered biased behavior or stereotyping behavior. However, the most fundamentally-important issue in any business environment is to encourage everyone to see when biased or stereotyping behavior is occurring. Some people may not be aware that they are participating in behavior that is ousting certain individuals or making them feel uncomfortable; many people are merely repeating cultural memes or ideas that are widespread without a thought as to what the impact is on the people around them or their potential cultural baggage (Alquilar, 2006).
One of the most important things that an employer or manager can do to create a good environment to work in for everyone is to encourage all the employees to be allies for those who may not be there to speak for themselves. This means encouraging employees not to remain silent or complicit when other employees begin to participate in behavior that can be considered biased or stereotyping behavior (Alquilar, 2006).
Some of the techniques that Alquilar (2006) describes are excellent techniques for encouraging thoughtful behavior in employees. One of the most important aspects of each of these techniques is that the ally-- the person speaking up on behalf of equality and unbiased communication-- does not assume negative intent on the part of the speaker when interacting with the speaker, even if he or she has shown blatant disregard or distaste for another group (Alquilar, 2006). Assuming a negative intent will break down the communication between the ally and the speaker, leaving the breakdown of communication perhaps even more pronounced than it was in the beginning.
One of the techniques that Alquilar suggests for opening the lines of communication between an ally and an individual utilizing biased or stereotyping-type language is to ask questions of the individual utilizing the behavior or language. This will force the individual to look at the language he or she is using and recognize that his or her behavior is not acceptable when it comes to acting professionally within a business environment. Questions about language are non-confrontational, and instead draw attention to the fact that the individual has used language or ideas that could potentially make many individuals of another group feel uncomfortable.
Similarly, if an individual is using more confrontational language, Alquilar (2006) suggests that a more direct approach should be taken; however, the ally must still be careful not to alienate the speaker by making him or her feel like he or she is being attacked. The ally could interrupt the behavior and redirect the conversation to impress upon the speaker that he or she does not approve, or the ally could apply the speaker’s statement to the universal human condition. The important thing when approaching an individual who is using biased or stereotyping language is to make that individual feel as though he or she has made an innocent mistake, but it is one that the listener will not tolerate, because it is a mark against another individual or group that is not present to defend itself. In short, the listener must impress upon the speaker that he or she does not tolerate that type of language or behavior.
Communication is one of the most important parts of business and management. Without good communication, the productivity of a workspace can easily break down and interpersonal issues can be exacerbated. Encouraging a community and culture of inclusivity is easy with a little foresight, and managers and employers can easily encourage and model this type of behavior in their employees.
Inclusiveness is not an action that can be taken once and then forgotten about. It is a culture that employers and businesses must cultivate and enforce in their employees, and it may not come easily at first. However, inclusiveness in corporate or business culture pays off huge dividends in the end, and makes for a much more diverse and enjoyable work space for everyone.
Aquilar, L. (2006). Ouch! That stereotype hurts. Dallas, TX: Walk the Talk.