ILM Discussion: Overcoming stereotypes in the workplace

June 22, 2018
Business and finance journalist Matt Packer discusses key news stories with the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) head of research, policy & standards, Kate Cooper


Diversity and stereotyping are issues all of us deal with on a daily basis. We both judge and are judged by others based on a number of factors, including race, gender, social class and intelligence.

But should this be something we have to deal with in the workplace? And how can we be a part of the positive change that aims to overcome these seemingly inherent views to create a more inclusive environment?

Following the announcement of a major new government scheme, hiring managers will need to factor in an arguably more challenging group of candidates: ex-offenders.

On 24 May, justice secretary David Gauke unveiled a new Education and Employment Strategy designed to improve the employability of former prisoners. As part of the initiative, employers will be encouraged to shift their attitudes “from shop floor to boardroom”.

Gauke said: “I want more employers to look past an offender’s conviction to their future potential. We do that by working more closely with employers to open their eyes to the benefits of hiring ex-offenders. But this is not just about creating a path to employment from institutions to employers, but about creating cultural change from within organisations themselves. I want employees, from the shop floor to the boardroom, to call out and challenge employers who turn a blind eye to attracting and representing ex-offenders in their workplace.”


Resources for success

That said, a rise of ex-offenders in the workplace would surely present employers with unique management challenges, particularly in terms of assessing conduct and honesty – and also not assuming automatically that a dishonest act in the workplace has been committed by a worker who has served prison time.

How should leaders work with ex-offender employees to safeguard openness and ensure that mutual benefits flow from the arrangement?

“We need look no further than Timpson for wisdom on this issue,” said Kate Cooper. “The key-cutting and shoe-repairs firm has been recruiting ex-offenders for several years, now. Chief executive officer James Timpson – who came up with the idea – claims that the incidence of criminal behaviour among the ex-offenders he hires is no more extensive than among the general population.”

Cooper notes: “The potential for that type of recruitment policy to be transformative in somebody’s life is obviously huge. But it’s not just about giving someone an opportunity by offering them a job. You have to give them resources to be able to succeed at that job, because getting it is only part of the equation. If you’re coming into a job off the back of life experiences in which positive role models who can demonstrate the value of contributing to something larger than yourself have been in short supply, then you will have fewer resources to draw upon than those who have had those role models.”

All told, Cooper contends, there is an interesting talent pool available here. “If leaders can pave the way for offenders to make successful transitions from offending behaviours to thriving in the workplace,” she says, “then the gains not just for the individual, or the organisation, but society as a whole, are potentially significant. So leaders should definitely have this talent pool on their radar screens – and should ask themselves, ‘What do these individuals need from us to succeed, once we have accepted them into our organisations?’”


Power and posture

Ex-offenders are not the only group that faces the challenge of overcoming stereotypes in the workplace in order to succeed. While the circumstances may seem less extreme, gender differences related purely to physical presence in the workplace are holding women back, according to Harvard Business School’s Professor Amy Cuddy.

The renowned body-language expert – host of a TED talk on ‘power poses’ that clocked up some 47 million views – said in an interview with Forbes: “When an individual has power, they take up more space. If you adopt these postures you are more likely to feel confident and see the world in a way that is filled with opportunities rather than challenges. If someone is seen as confident then they are also seen as competent.”

Cuddy believes that men take up more physical space in the workplace than women – even through using techniques such as speaking slowly and more deliberately to occupy greater slices of conversational airtime. In Cuddy’s view, that constant projection of male confidence leaves women at a disadvantage.

“Perceptions of confidence and competence are extremely highly correlated,” she says. “Not the actual traits, but the perceptions of those traits. So, if women are seen as less confident, people attribute that [lack of expressed confidence] to a lack of competence. But really this is about what women think they are allowed to do. Women are simply trying to conform to the stereotype of their group.”

However, do the majority of people in the workplace really police and calibrate their own body language in such a detailed way – and monitor others’ with the same level of scrutiny?

Is it not the case that more people are concerned about what they say verbally than the image they convey with their posture?

And in a working world that is starting to pay more attention to neurodiversity – factoring in talented individuals who may be uncomfortable in social situations – is it perhaps somewhat unethical to have such a ‘one-size-fits-all’ view of what body language may communicate?


Challenging behaviours

“I would take issue with many of these people who talk about the nature of confidence,” said Kate Cooper. “In their view, females are in deficit, because the norm is to be overconfident, to take up a lot of space, to speak more – so if women are not doing any of those things, then they are somehow wrong.

“But what we should be doing is reimagining what is normal. Perhaps overconfidence is a risky flaw. Perhaps claiming that you can do things when you can’t is unconstructive. Perhaps talking too much in a meeting situation means that you are taking someone else’s time. And perhaps we should be challenging those behaviours and power plays, instead of seeing them as normal.”

Cooper notes: “we certainly judge people all the time on their physical presences and on the ways in which they speak – whether it’s the tone or accent they use or their choice of words. Body language contributes hugely to the overall impression that individuals make. But what we’re beginning to learn when we consider issues of neurodiversity is how people use language in different ways, depending upon who they are, their backgrounds and their neurodiverse conditions.”

Indeed, she adds: “some individuals within the neurodiverse segment will communicate in very direct ways – and there are copious organisational benefits to receiving direct instructions, requests or even criticism. Office manners, overlaid with our often diffident British culture, ensure that we can be incredibly indirect about what we want people to do. So, again, a new normal is probably what we should be looking for, rather than regarding deviations from the current normal as somehow lacking.”


For more on these topics, listen to Episode 1 of the ILM podcast in partnership with LID Radio:




About the authors


Matt Packer

Matt Packer is a business and finance journalist who provides expert comment for organisations such as CPA Global, Inemmo Leadership Development Consultancy, The Institute of Leadership & Management and the Chartered Management Institute.



Kate CooperKate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM). She has appeared on BBC Television, BBC Radio 4, has a regular column in Dialogue magazine, is a key note speaker at conferences and provides expert commentary on a range of topics arising from the Institute’s research agenda.




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