When leaders label employees, it creates an unhealthy work environment and undermines their ability to unleash people’s full potential and performance.

Harmful Labels in the Workplace

Believe it or not, there are lots of harmful labels being used in the workplace today.

You’ve even heard some of them or maybe 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’ve 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.

Instead of identifying and adapting to different personalities in the workplace, they let their frustrations get the best of them, apply the labels, and create a disengaging workplace.

The Labeling Theory of Sociology

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 behave in alignment with the label. 

The more that others use the label, the more the employee is stigmatized and the label sticks. The more the label sticks, the more the person is treated according to the label.

And it’s costing you.

Employee Labels Are Costly

Labeling also creates a biased perspective against employees, which can lead to unfair treatment and injustice.

This results in a significant cost to the organization in terms of lower morale, increased turnover, toxic work environment, lost productivity, and so much more.

“The Assumption”

I was in the office of a new manager that had been in her role for about two months. I’ll call her Trish, which is not her real name.

Trish and I were going over some key performance indicators, when an employee named Jane (also not her real name) walked into the office.

Jane reported an extremely serious incident that had allegedly occurred between her and a male co-worker. Let’s call him Tom.

Tom had been involved in two prior incidents, but none were similar to this one, or as serious.

When Jane left Trish’s office, Trish turned to me, shook her head and casually commented, “This is just like Tom. Here he goes again…” She continued talking about this new incident as if it were an established fact.

I replied that she couldn’t assume the allegation was true.

She would need to inform human resources, conduct investigative interviews, and evaluate all the information to assess the validity of the complaint. (In this work setting, managers conducted some of their own investigations. I know this isn’t the case in every workplace.)

Assumptions Are Dangerous

When leaders base their assessment of a situation based solely on an employee’s prior history, it’s one example of employee labeling.

Assumptions arising from employee labeling will hamper a leader’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.

Have You Made Assumptions? I Know I Have.

I’m wired to analyze, judge, and take action. But I’m also self-aware. And this helps me manage my inclinations.

Making decisions driven by employee labeling creates an unhealthy work environment that’s detrimental to the success of the manager, the employee, and the organization. As leaders, we can develop self-awareness and adapt our communication approach to build a better workplace.

Sylvia Melena is the Founder & CEO of Melena Consulting Group and the award-winning leadership author of Supportive Accountability: How to Inspire People and Improve Performance.


  1. This article is right on point. Although I researched this information for a school project, unfortunately I experienced the toxic effects of labeling in the workplace.

    1. Yes, unfortunately toxic workplaces exist and they take their toll on people and performance. What an interesting subject for a school project, Jocelyn! – Sylvia Melena

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