Stigma is a major cause of workplace discrimination in the UK and beyond.
It affects a wide range of social groups including, for example: people who are HIV positive, those with mental health issues, disabled people, those from certain social backgrounds, single parents, ex-offenders, older workers, the homeless, those who society considers to be overweight, trans people or religious groups.
Erving Goffman, one of the greatest social psychologists of the 20th century, has shown how stigma works through a process of labelling that seeks to attribute negative associations, which in turn discredits a person or group.
Goffman also identified what he termed “covering” – the strategy many of us take to conceal something about us that we feel ashamed of because of the stigma others attach to one or more aspects of our identity.
In Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion, by Deloitte University, the authors identify four types of covering at work:
- Appearance: Covering up aspects of one’s appearance, including mannerisms and attire.
- Affiliation-based covering: Not talking about one’s identity or not supporting related work events or talks for fear of being “outed”.
- Advocacy-based covering: Not wanting to advocate for, or stick up for, your group or colleagues.
- Association-based covering: For instance, not wanting to attend an employee networking group – such as a mental health group – for fear of being exposed and discriminated against.
Five ways in which stigma leads to biased thinking and decision-making
- Not being hired because one is, for instance, older, gay, overweight, a Muslim, working class or an ex-offender.
- Not being assigned to a project team.
- Negative assumptions about work commitment, which in turn impact career-planning conversations.
- Being gossiped about by co-workers.
- Exclusion from conversations and workplace social events.
The consequences of such biases and discrimination are an increase in stress and a decrease in emotional wellbeing, together with withdrawing from work colleagues.
Confirmation bias is then used by colleagues and managers to justify further criticism and exclusion.
Five ways to challenge stigma at work
- Be less judgemental. We all have biases, but actively working towards mitigating these is a fundamental principle of workplace inclusion
- Go out of your way to get to know all team members on an individual level – this helps to break down the stereotypes that facilitate stigmatic thinking.
- Don’t contribute to office gossip, and make it safe to challenge others who do.
- Be consistent in work allocation decisions.
- Create a set of team rituals which are designed to foster group connectivity.
This article was originally published in the March issue of CA Magazine.