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Thom Dennis

Serenity in Leadership Ltd

CEO

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Why we need to stop labelling employees

Using labels to define others brings the potential to discriminate, divide and marginalise our colleagues
We need to stop labelling our people

We over-label people all of the time. We label them and describe them by age, colour, race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical and personality features, as well as a host of other social factors relating to work and home life. 

We also of course apply labels to ourselves. How many times have you called yourself ‘lazy’ or ‘bad at presenting’ or ‘uncreative’. These negative labels that we give ourselves limit our growth and encourage other people to think of us in those ways too.

Without realising, we often assign a label or put a cross next to a box to describe the people we work with, often before they even open their mouth

What is intersectionality? 

Intersectionality is how different parts of our identity merge to make us unique individuals rather than us being defined by a single identity. I am a man, white, an ex-marine, a father, a bullying survivor and a leadership facilitator amongst many other things. Being labelled can actively influence how we go on to behave or interact, as well as how people interact with us.

Without realising, we often assign a label or put a cross next to a box to describe the people we work with, often before they even open their mouth. The more boxes that are crossed, the more complicated it becomes for people to understand us which opens the way for discrimination. Whilst there is a growing understanding about how intersectionality helps us to support diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace, labelling at work is still a problem.

So how can companies move away from over-categorisation and over-labelling?

Scrutinise how you use employee data

D&I policies encourage collecting employee data relating to social factors such as race, ethnicity, gender etc. to analyse the diversity of a company, but fixation on the results means we are looking as a whole rather than on an individual basis. Labels are often all or nothing and are a way to take problematic shortcuts. 

Labelling employees can lead to them missing out on opportunities because they do not fit a particular or the ‘right’ mould

Celebrate the rich and diverse unique talent you have in the team

We are multi-layered and complex, and that richness is a gift. Celebrate and value differences without the need for labels. Divert from a ‘one size fits all’ or a ‘box ticking’ mentality. Accept identity is complex but doesn’t define us. This is particularly important right from the start during the recruitment process.

Realign the business with a powerful intersectional plan for inclusion

Create structured opportunities to reflect, learn and then implement solid strategies for diversity, inclusion and equality. Reinvent communication and operational plans to produce the best possible outcome for the business and people who make up the business. Tap into the thoughts of your employees, colleagues and customers at all levels to develop 20:2022 vision.

Think about insider / outsider dynamics

Address unconscious individual and systemic biases. Discourage pre-wired thinking about who is in our tribe and who is not. Labelling employees can lead to them missing out on opportunities because they do not fit a particular or the ‘right’ mould. Clamping down on outsider-ism and offering opportunities to all is key, including when interacting socially at work. 

Dig deep to stop misunderstanding

When you don’t know, don’t make assumptions. Openly verbalise your intention that you want to understand better. Be curious, not judgemental. It’s ok to ask questions about someone’s identity if you are coming from a genuinely curious and respectful place.  

Avoid trying to fix any systemic prejudices by quickly applying a plaster

Training, education, open conversation, having strong and transparent processes to deal with problems, and managers modelling the right behaviour all help us to do better and evolve for the long term. Keep learning and start at the top of the organisation. It’s not about quick solutions, it’s about progression.

Educate about why intersectionality is so important to minorities in particular

You don’t describe a white person as white so why do we describe someone as black? We don’t describe a straight person as straight so why are people labelled gay? We have to challenge what we perceive to be ‘normal’. Be flexible and avoid rigid binaries by looking at things from multiple perspectives. Organise workshops that involve role play/switching and reverse mentoring, or storytelling through true stories. 

Avoiding talking about how it makes us feel stunts the individual and company’s growth

Understand labels are used to survive criticism

We often label difficult clients or colleagues because we feel we are being criticised. Perhaps they are ‘hard to please’, or ‘overly-emotional’ or ‘egotistical’. Whatever it is, check in with yourself as to whether it is reasonable or just your reaction, as opposed to truly being about them. Be careful about seeking agreement from others to support your own prejudice.

Maximise health and wellbeing

Appreciating intersectionality means you are showing you care. When there are problems, talk about feelings. Discuss resentment, anger, fear, shame, anxiety, frustration and embarrassment that come up because of over-labelling. Avoiding talking about how it makes us feel stunts the individual and company’s growth. 

Interested in this topic? Read Diversity, equality and inclusion: Taking a data-driven approach that addresses intersectionality.

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