Why Are We So Stuck On Labels?

A friend of mine recently fell in love with a woman. Her previous relationships had been with men, but this time Cupid pointed her in a new direction, to a beautiful person with whom she shares an amazing connection. 

However, when mutual friends brought this up in conversation, it was all, “Have you heard X is a lesbian now?”. This saddened me, and made me question why we're so quick to attach labels to people. What purpose do they serve? How are they helpful?

As a marketing director, I spend a lot of time thinking about demographics, which often means assigning broad descriptors, or “labels”, to wider groups in order to make calculated decisions.

In this capacity, labels have their place, but only because they help to segment a much larger population. Once you get down to the individual level, labels can be misleading, or even harmful, particularly within professional spheres.

Instead of dropping in phrases like “lesbian”, “gay”, “black”, “divorced”, “single mum”, etc., and all the connotations that come with such terms, why can't we just stick to the details that matter at the time? Why can’t we simply say, “Have you heard that so-and-so has found love with someone new?”, for example.

What’s In A Name?

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s tells us: “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” But the problem is, it wouldn’t. The way we view and react to anything is heavily influenced by unconscious bias. We can’t help but form an impression based on the limited information we have about a person when we first encounter them, and this is what makes labels so problematic. 

We have a preconception of the sort of person who might be a “techiel”, or a “new father”, or even a “rugby boy”. Yet none of these labels have any bearing on an individual’s ability to be a good employee, so why should they be discussed within the recruitment process at all?

Some people even include their marital status on their CV, as if this should have any bearing on their suitability for the advertised role.

A Time And Place

Of course, that’s not to say you should completely ignore these details about an individual. The point is, nobody is only a “single parent”, or “Catholic”, or a “divorcee”. However, the fact that one of your team is a mum, or transgender, or deaf, or a pianist, is still relevant to who they are as a person. But these labels are just personal details, not defining factors.

For example, as an employer, you will, naturally, take steps to ensure that adequate provisions are made for employees with disabilities. As a socially-minded organisation, you may even look to increase the provision of paternity benefits to give new fathers comparable rights to new mums. 

All of this is natural, and productive, because the labels are only being used in the very specific sense in which they are relevant. 

Finding The Balance

It can be tough to weed out the discriminatory elements from your recruitment process, because so many of these practices feel so natural and inoffensive at first glance. However, as is always the case in these matters, it’s important to consider your approach from a wider perspective.  

The bottom line is, while labels can help you provide a better and more inclusive work environment for everyone, they have no place when discussing individuals. During recruitment, all that matters is a person’s capacity to do the job in hand. Do they have the necessary skill-set, experience, or drive? 

However, even today, promising candidates are turned away because they’re deemed to be “the wrong cultural fit”. Or, in other words, too old, or too young, or from a different background to the majority of the team. 

To facilitate the removal of both conscious and unconscious bias from your hiring process consider anonymising application packs, so each individual can be judged solely on their merits. 

Don’t get stuck on labels. Instead, zero-in on the details that matter, and outstrip the competition with a recruitment strategy that focuses on excellence, not stereotypes.

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