Labels can help provide a sense of order, identify content, give us more information, and provide a way to distinguish things. We see this every day in our lives as consumers. But labeling people can have a profound impact on how we interact with each other. It can influence how respectful we are of other’s opinions and beliefs. It can also impact trust and relationships. Just think about what happens when a child is labeled by teachers or peers as ‘slow’ compared to ‘gifted’.
Does your workplace culture reinforce and tolerate the use of labeling people every day? Are any of these ‘labels’ conveyed or reinforced through wide spread use, humor and workplace banter? If so, then your inclusion efforts may be stalling because attitudes and actions may be sending mixed signals.
Here are a few key ‘tests’ we encourage individuals and organizations to use in determining if labeling is hurting inclusion efforts. In each case if your answer is ‘yes’ then we would encourage you to stop, look, and listen. There may be unintended consequences being created including division, exclusion, demotivation, and strained relationships.
- Does the label attached to a particular profession or job type in your organization affect how it's perceived? Example – They are just contract labor or they are just support staff.
- Is the word or term used mistaken as a descriptor? ‘Loser’ is not a descriptor. It’s a negative label.
- Does the label carry assumptions which can lead to stereo-typing? Example – They are not from the U.S. so English is not their first language. We will have to go slow and simplify things.
- Does the label cause people to lose motivation and self-esteem? Example – They are topped out in their career.
- Does the label create unrealistic expectations? Example – They are considered high potential and they are on the fast track.
- Does the conversation patronize people by undermining their individuality like “some of my friends are ______”; or “your being ______ isn’t a problem for me”?
- Does the conversation create resentment or strain relationships like “they only got that job because they are ______”?
- Do the words convey an exaggerated sense of threat? Example – They grew up in the Middle East.
- Does the focus on what degree or certification the individual has, inadvertently label others as a less valuable contributor?
- Does the use of pesky little words like ‘still’ imply that this activity is out of the ordinary, defying a norm? Example – I didn’t know people your age still did that.
When an individual or organization walks by conversations that are using labels that can be perceived as hurtful, belittling, or dehumanizing then there is a potential cancer creating exclusion. Labeling shapes perception, but perception and reality don’t always match. Just ask us Dorks!