Racial stereotypes are embedded in our culture

August 4, 2010

NEW YORK, Aug. 4, 2010/Troy Media/ – Steve L. Robbins likens racial stereotypes to information on a CD that’s burned permanently in our brain.

Robbins is president of SL Robbins & Associates, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based management consulting company specializing in cultural and diversity issues.

It’s 45 years since the Selma to Montgomery marches, sparked by Amelia Boynton, her husband and Martin Luther King, Jr. While it marked a political and emotional peak in the American civil rights movement, racial prejudice is still very much alive in the United States – and the rest of the world as well.

Embedded in our culture

Racial stereotypes come virtually everywhere, according to Robbins. As children we pick them up from our parents, teachers, friends, classmates, the news media, the entertainment industry, and from personal experiences. “It’s human nature and unavoidable to make unfair generalizations about others based on their race,” Robbins explains.

Robbins says it’s almost impossible to totally eliminate racial stereotypes, but training is a vehicle for understanding how they affect actions, reactions and decision-making.

“It can lead to awareness of gut reactions to people who are different from you, and those reactions can be questioned, knowing they likely are based on stereotypes and biased images,” says Robbins. Diversity training is all about helping people understand and manage their biases.

Racial stereotypes stall careers

Robbins maintains that having preset assumptions about people based on their race can have a significant effect on their careers. Here’s how:

Cuts off opportunities for growth and competition. If you brand a co-worker or employee as slow, naive, non-intellectual, good at numbers but bad with people, great at following directions but not leader material, or some other limiting stereotype based on that person’s race, you will not be able to take advantage of his different and potentially valuable approach to a problem or task. Tapping diverse viewpoints and styles drives innovative problem solving and learning.

Creates low morale and low retention. No one wants to work for an organization infected with racist attitudes and policies. Studies show people of color are three times more likely than their white counterparts to quit a job based on perceived unfair practices at work based on their race. Wherever you are on the organizational ladder, an intolerant culture will affect everyone’s performance and create a “roller coaster of instability,” says Robbins.

Poor productivity. When racism is rampant in an organization, people will not collaborate and work together. Open communication won’t exist.  Preconceived notions about the way things should be done forces people with different work styles, experience, and viewpoints to bend to the will of the majority. This result is employees will not work o their potential.

How to spot racial bias in your organization

Signs of workplace racial bias are easy to spot if you know what to look for. Robbins lists seven signals:

1. Extracurricular diversity programs. When diversity workshops are offered as occasional extracurricular activities it demonstrates a lack of organizational commitment to cultural competency. Diversity policies should not be an add-on subject to cost cutting.

 2. Chronic absenteeism and high turnover. Are women, Asians, Hispanics, and black workers constantly quitting? Low retention among certain groups could be a red flag that your organization is encouraging diversity and is sadly behind the times.

 3. Poor performance. Performance problems are often blamed on people rather than on organizational structures, systems and organizational culture. Poor employee performance can result from a number of things, including such factors as stress, exclusion, and lack of opportunity.

4. Dominant decision-making style. Is risk-taking discouraged? Have employees been given the message “it’s our way or the highway”? A single way to get things done may seem like efficient management, but it also discourages multiple perspectives and styles, and leaves exceptional talent and ideas untapped.

5. Homogenous leadership. Is your executive leadership made up of all white males? Organizations that truly value diversity and inclusion practice what they preach. If the same people are getting passed over for promotion, cultural competence may be a problem at the top.

6. Water cooler slights. Seemingly innocent racist, sexist, ageist or other insensitive jokes are a sign that the company culture tolerates disrespectful behaviour.  Holiday celebrations that exclude certain groups are another sign. Such everyday conversations and activities can unwittingly hurt coworkers.

7.  Failing to use diverse suppliers. Companies that are truly committed to building a diverse and inclusive organization in order to be innovative and competitive will also seek out diverse suppliers.