The Danger of Employee Labeling

Think back to your high school days and consider the various cliques of kids that roamed the halls.  You may recall the jocks, the nerds, the goths and the many other labels that you placed on others or that others placed on you. 

Unfortunately, not much has changed since then. You may have graduated from high school, went on to college, and landed in the workplace, but I can assure you that social labels are still around.

The only thing that has changed is the nature of the labels used.  You may have heard some of them or even expressed them yourself.  These include labels such as slacker, aggressive, wimp, stubborn and many more.  And if we’re really honest with ourselves, we all have probably used a label of some sort or another at one point in our careers.  What’s worse is that some leaders are still using these labels in how they treat employees.

According to the labeling theory of sociology, if managers and supervisors consistently apply a label to an employee, the employee may start to believe the label and to behave in alignment with the label.  The more that others use the label, the more the employee is stigmatized and the label is solidified.   The more the label is solidified, the more the person is treated according to the label. It’s a vicious circle.

When leaders label their employees, it creates a very unhealthy work environment and undermines their ability to unleash their employees’ fullest potential. This results in a significant cost to the organization. This labeling also creates a biased perspective against employees, which can lead to unfair treatment.

I recall a time when I was in the office of a manager who was beginning her management development journey.  A female employee walked into her office and described a very serious incident that had allegedly occurred between a male co-worker and her.  It so happened that the male co-worker had been involved in two prior incidents, but none were as serious as this one.

When the female employee left the manager’s office, the manager turned to me, shook her head and casually commented, “This is just like him to do such a thing.”  I gently advised her that we could not assume the allegation was true. We would need to inform human resources, conduct investigative interviews, and evaluate all the information to assess the validity of the complaint.

Assumptions based on employee labeling will hamper a supervisor’s ability to get to the root of an issue and act with fairness and justice.  Assumptions, whether positive or negative, will be a serious roadblock to having open and objective conversations with employees and to providing adequate support.

Making decisions driven by employee labeling creates an unhealthy work environment that is detrimental to the success of the supervisor, the employee, and the organization.