Stereotyping in the Workplace

This week’s blog post is by guest blogger, Carmen Mackrill, Challenge Consulting’s People Services Consultant …

I had the pleasure of travelling to Brisbane last week to attend the 9th Industrial/Organisational Psychology Conference 2011.

Walking across the Victoria Bridge on the way to the Conference and Exhibition Centre, it was hard to imagine that only 6 months ago, parts of Brisbane were completely under water!

Now, despite the complications caused by the volcanic smoke affecting air travel in and around Australia, with true Aussie ‘can-do’ spirit the conference organisers remained undeterred and the conference went ahead as planned. And what a worthwhile event to attend!

The principal focus throughout the conference “connecting people”.

Following last week’s blog post by my colleague Tiffany Whitby on women in the workplace, here I will share my thoughts and impressions of a particularly interesting keynote address on “managing stereotypes in the workplace”, presented by Michigan State University’s Professor Ann Marie Ryan.

But first, just how prevalent is stereotyping in the workplace?

Our latest online poll asked: “Have you ever experienced stereotyping in the workplace?”

Alarmingly, 75% of respondents answered “yes”.

This is backed up by Angela Priestly in a recent article from the Women & Leadership in Australia e-newsletter*: “stereotyping in the workplace (especially in the legal profession) is ever prevalent and diversity programmes have the tendency to focus on numbers rather than on the wider issue of diversity.”

In her conference presentation, Professor Ryan reiterated that whilst organisations should have certain strategies in place to counteract or manage stereotypes in the workplace, employees also use their own strategies to protect themselves and their identity from being stereotyped against. Specifically, individuals make a conscious decision to either express something about themselves or not, to counter the perceived effects of stereotyping.

According to Professor Ryan, individuals use the following strategies:

1. Concealing their identity (i.e. concealing an aspect of themselves that they perceive will be open to stereotype)

2. Acknowledging their identity and putting it out there

3. Avoiding discussion of or acknowledgment of their identity

4. Disidentifying with a perceived stereotype

5. Disconfirming e.g. counter stereotyping

6. Educating others and advocating for their identity

Professor Ryan emphasised that individuals are most satisfied when they celebrate all aspects of themselves, rather than masking an aspect that they perceive could be stereotyped against. She also referred to a study done by Vignoles et al 2006**, who suggested that individuals “… are motivated to maintain or enhance feelings of self-esteem, continuity, distinctiveness, belonging, efficacy and meaning in their identities”.


The hard reality is that cost of being stereotyped against because of some aspect of your identity can be high. Advice to both individuals seeking a job or an incumbent job holder on strategies for managing their identity will obviously vary, as their motivation for impression management will differ according to the situation that they are faced with.

Managers should be aware of the different strategies that individuals adopt to prevent stereotyping, and work with the wider organisation in fulfilling its responsibility to minimise stigmatisation through implementing policies to encourage diversity, diversity training, targeted recruitment efforts, and most importantly creating an organisational culture that embraces the uniqueness of all employees and allows them to bring the strengths of their true identity to the team.

In the end, those organisations that do breed a culture of high stigmatisation will be the biggest losers, whilst organisations that embrace diversity will ensure success for themselves and their employees.


* A. Priestly (2010). Diversity: Far from female only. Women & Leadership Australia eNewsletter, May

** Vignoles, V.L., Regalia, C., Manzi, C., Golledge, J., Scabini, E. (2006). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 90(2), 308-333.

Disclaimer: The Fair Work Ombudsman can help people who believe they have been subject to unlawful discrimination in relation to their employment. The Fair Work Ombudsman investigates allegations of unlawful workplace discrimination and may initiate litigation against a national system employer for contravening the Fair Work Act 2009. For more information contact: Fair Work Infoline: 13 13 94 or review the fact sheet