to address harassment, bullying and discrimination

 with Stephen Hammond


I've said that it's more important to acknowledge prejudice than pretend you can banish all internal prejudices. But that's not to say you can't or shouldn't try for an arbitrary change of mindset or behaviour. It's easier than you think. I've managed to moderate a lifetime of bad eating habits through a couple of tricks. I always used to snack in the evening, and I'm not talking carrots and apples, but potato chips and peanuts. I was known to sit down in front of the television with a jar of peanut butter in my lap and a bag of crackers beside me. Logically, I knew this was bad, and I should be able to resist indulging in such a routine. But I didn't lick the habit by self-discipline. I employed two tricks: banishing chips from my home, and brushing my teeth after supper (because I never eat after I brush my teeth). Pathetic? Maybe. But it worked, so who cares.


Let's turn to the issue of attempting to override stereotypes. One example of how I've managed to change arbitrary behaviour relates to people butting into line at a bus stop or at the grocery counter. Having been brought up with a strong sense of fair play, I'm often inclined to tell them (politely) to get to the back of the line. Similarly, if I see someone being rude, or smoking in a no-smoking area, I'm burning to speak up. However, one day I noticed that I was making more comments to easier targets; a young student or someone not as big as me. With the demographic make-up of so many parts of Canada, often these people were of a different ethnic make-up than mine, although by no means exclusively. This raised a flag for me, forced me to think.

Now I adhere to a new rule. I'll only say something to a person if I'd say the same thing to a line backer for the B.C. Lions. If I wouldn't, then I leave them alone. Just like the late night snacking, I'm using a practical technique to change my behaviour to get a better result.


My point is that I think we should accept that we pick up stereotypes and we pre-judge people all the time. But we don't have to act on our stereotypes. If we had the "thought police," I'm sure they'd condemn me to capital punishment for some of my thoughts. But it's not our thoughts that matter as long as our behaviour reflects giving people the best opportunities they have coming to them. That sense of fairness will get you the best employees and will enhance morale.


When we make business and organizational decisions based on stereotypes and prejudices, we miss out on a number of different fronts. For example:


  • Losing out on good candidates. If you think that certain people will be consistently late, lazy, or unreliable, based on stereotypes, you'll let good people slip through your fingers. My first job in "personnel" with a major retailer had me looking for an employee for a high-end women's fashion department. I found the perfect candidate. She was knowledgeable about the merchandise, friendly, and had good retail experience. Lucky for her, Manitoba had strict rules about application forms, so I didn't know she was only 18 years old until I had given her the job and she had to fill out pertinent information. I said then, and I knew it to be true, that if I had known her age, I would never have given her the job. I had it in my mind that we needed someone older.

  • Letting stereotypes determine bad people. Many a political and social commentator has concluded that Indigenous and Black Canadians are more involved in crime, based on the fact that they're over-represented in Canadian jails. A retail employee who subscribes to this notion will have a hard time not hovering over Indigenous and Black customers every time they walk through the door. If this same employee is less inclined to watch White customers as closely, who are they going to catch shoplifting more often, and will that not confirm their stereotype? At the same time, who gets to walk out of the store undetected? And so the cycle continues.
  • Assuming that positive stereotypes are a good thing. Anyone who thinks that negative stereotyping is bad and positive stereotyping is good should ask a Chinese adult who was always lousy at math or a Jewish person with poor business instincts what that was like. So-called "positive" stereotypes set up unrealistic expectations that are difficult to fulfill. Hiring people based on positive stereotypes is no better for your workplace's bottom line than letting negative stereotypes influence decisions. Qualifications and abilities are all you need to search for.


Never mind the laws and policies in our country; the truly most effective way to break down barriers and attract the best and most productive workers is to acknowledge our prejudices, then try to overcome them.



1) Consider your own prejudices - since we all have them. You don't need to stand up on a chair and announce them, since we rarely like to admit them, but at least make a mental note of which groups of people for which you have negative opinions. This is strictly meant to let you know that since you have pre-conceived stereotypes, then all your employees do as well.


2) Notice the stereotypes and prejudices of others - and you might be surprised. People rarely come out and say them, but they will give signs by the things they say, such as: "they just do it that way"; "it's part of their heritage"; or "the police keep stats on those people, but they just won't tell us."


3) Consider how you can address stereotypes in your workplace - as they form prejudices and have an impact on the workplace. Perhaps you'd like to talk about stereotypes (there are a number of exercises to discuss them) in a meeting, or ask an employee what she meant with a certain comment.

This is TIP #23 of 52 WEEKLY TIPS for managers and supervisors. 
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