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Why We Must Challenge Stereotyping in the Workplace

Prior to 1970, California labor laws prevented women from working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. Why? There was a faulty assumption on the part of lawmakers that the “weaker sex” needed protection from the rigors of overtime work. 

An assumption is a belief based on little or no evidence. Assumptions lead to stereotypes. This stereotype about women was so generally accepted, it took years of feminist consciousness-raising to overcome.

Though of lesser social impact, perhaps, the same thinking is today falsely categorizing a different group of workers. This time, false assumptions are stereotyping generations, most egregiously, the Millennial generation.

In my talent development consulting work, I see firsthand the harm caused by such stereotypes: Baby Boomers frustrated with their Millennial employees and Millennials who feel misunderstood. The result is a lack of communication and low morale, which, in turn, results in lower productivity and higher attrition rates.

So how and why have negative stereotypes taken hold?  A quick Google search of “millennials” reveals an overwhelming number of generation experts who have made their reputations (and incomes) by selling generational snake oil to businesses that are buying a seductive product: the key to understanding the elusive Millennial. But their advice overwhelmingly simplifies human relations and, in fact, is usually based on flimsy and surprisingly contradictory research. 

Here are two examples of inaccurate stereotypes:

1. Millennials are more tech savvy than Baby Boomers

Millennials have been closely associated with the technological revolution.  Because this group grew up during the digital age, they have been labeled “digital natives.” Generation X and Baby Boomers by contrast are “digital immigrants” (less comfortable and less familiar with technology – supposedly).  However, a 2015 study by the IBM institute for Business Value shows that employees of every generation have embraced the technological revolution. A 2013 study by Cornerstone OnDemand shows that all three generations adopted new work applications at about the same rate.

In reality, technology use has been shown to be more strongly associated with economic status and social class than with generation. Statistically, Hispanic Millennials do not use technology more than white Gen Xers, for example.

2. Millennials are job-hoppers.

Millennials are considered fickle employees with less loyalty to their employers than older generations. At first glance, this might seem to be backed up by the research:  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that today's young employees hold an average 6.2 jobs between the ages of 18 and 26. However, most Millennials hold three-to-four summer jobs and internships between the ages of 18 and 22. They stay in their first non-internship, non-temporary job for approximately three years after college.

These are just two examples of the many assumptions held by some that are not supported by in-depth research. Not only are these stereotypes inaccurate, they can be insulting.  No one likes to be told what they believe, what they value, and what they “really” want.  These are faulty assumptions based on faulty evidence, leading to damaging stereotypes, which can result in negative impact in the workplace and to businesses.

Jessica Kriegel is the author of Unfairly Labeled: How Your Workplace Can Benefit from Ditching Generational Stereotypes and is a featured speaker at the i4cp 2017 Conference: Next Practices Now (March 20 – 23).