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10 Reasons Communicating Stereotypes Is Bad For Business

The Background
My son loves Barbie dolls. He especially loves putting clips in their hair. At two years old he has learned how to make a ponytail using a rubberband. This is pretty complicated stuff for a kid who is still learning to feed himself with a fork.

When he is without his Barbie dolls, he can be seen sporting his Disney Princess messenger bag. The last time he put it on, he proudly proclaimed that he was “Just like daddy.” Although not a pink princess version, my son is correct that Daddy frequently carries his messenger bag around town.

Neither me or my husband see anything wrong with my son playing with dolls or carrying the princess bag. To the contrary, we see it as making perfect sense. He has an older sister and these items are around the house and at his disposal. What’s more, we see it as a benefit because he is so invested in these items that he is modeling appropriate behavior and learning new skills. It is, for example, difficult to make a ponytail and yet he taught himself to do it out of sheer determination because that’s what he wanted to do. There are no “boys” toys that would allow him to develop his fine motor skills in this way.

The Incident
Each day that my son goes to school he either brings with him his doll or his bag. I took my son to school the other day and his teacher, as she always does, laughed and said, “He’s so cute.” This time something different happened next. She asked if he likes the Cars movies. She followed this up by suggesting that maybe I should purchase some more boy themed items for him. I mentioned that we have an extensive collection of dinosaurs, trains, and cars and that he just prefers the dolls and bags. I neglected to mention we have construction toys and superheroes too. She reiterated that, “Well, maybe if you can consider…” and trailed over politely not completing her sentence. No need to. Her suggestion and stereotype were clear.

The Problem
Communicating stereotypes is bad business. In the incident I just described, I am a customer and the teacher is a representative of a company. This incident, then, is an example of any customer service exchange in which a company representative communicates a stereotype. In my example, the teacher communicated the stereotype that homosexuality is bad.

My example illustrates the reasons that communicating stereotypes is bad business. In the points below, I articulate why a company should train its employees not to communicate stereotypes.

1. Your employee doesn’t know how a person will react when a stereotype is communicated. Part of me wanted to be aggressive and say, “If you’re so smart, then where is the research that says this is a problem?” I held this back, another customer might not have and might have even said something much worse inevitably snowballing the conversation into antagonism quickly. Companies don’t want agitated customers.

2. Your employee can’t know what a customer is thinking and, so, the potential impact on a customer can never be known. Even though I acted politely with the teacher, I immediately registered what she said as a problem. What an employee says affects how customers view that employee and, more importantly, the company in the future.

3. Your employee may be wrong. The teacher presumed that my son using “girl” toys is a problem at least in part because of the faulty assumption and stereotype that homosexuality is bad. Customers are justifiably skeptical of companies who provide inaccurate information, even if or perhaps especially when it’s said causally.

4. Your employee may inadvertently hit a hot button topic for the customer. Clearly, my son’s teacher did not know that I teach classes in intercultural communication and specialize in the study of stereotypes, topics that would require me to be aware of the very issues she was raising and problems associated with these. Companies lose out when employees alienate customers.

5. Your employee can find a better way to communicate his or her intended message to the customer. If the teacher was trying to tell me that I should consider broadening my son’s toy options because boys who use “girl” toys have socialization problems or can suffer from gender confusion in the future, then she might have had more success doing so in a different way. She might have requested a one-on-one conversation and left out the stereotypes in order to more successfully make her recommendation. Instead, she passive aggressively made this suggestion as I was in a rush to drop off my child and go to work. Employees should be trained to communicate in a way that maximizes the chances of the customer receiving, understanding, and being receptive to the company’s intended message.

6. Communicating a stereotype is impersonal and customers want personal treatment. Rather than relying on any information she knew about me or my son (or husband and daughter for that matter), my son’s teacher communicated with me like I was any other parent with a child who was behaving inappropriately. Customers want to be treated like they are special and like the company cares; stereotypes work against this.

7. Your employee might misrepresent the company’s position on important and even controversial issues. I’m not convinced that my son’s teacher was appropriate in offering concern. But if she was, her message came across instead as homophobic. At the extreme, unedited commentary on political or social issues by employees can be a public relations nightmare.

8. Employees don’t necessarily realize how communicating stereotypes casually can be viewed as inappropriate. I am certain that my son’s teacher did not realize the problem with what she had said. If she had, she might have approached the conversation more professionally by taking the time to speak with me openly, sincerely, and privately about the topic. Communicating stereotypes counters professionalism and employee professionalism reflects on the organization.

9. Your employee might be viewed as having an agenda. I am left wondering after this conversation what was this teacher’s agenda. Is she sincerely looking out for my child? Is she homophobic? Is she on a religious mission to discourage homosexuality? Political and social agendas of an employee should not be unintentionally transparent to customers.

10. Your employee may lose the customer’s trust. Now that I had this conversation with this teacher, I am concerned about how she acts with my son in class. Does she discourage him at school from using “girl” toys? Does she make passive aggressive comments to him about gender norms like she did with me? It’s never good for business when customers lose trust in the company.

These 10 reasons why stereotypes are bad for business culminate in one point: negative publicity. An agitated, alienated, skeptical, and overall unreceptive customer who is the recipient of unedited commentary with a social or political agenda from an unprofessional employee does not make for a happy customer. An unhappy customer speaks louder and to more people than a happy customer. This is bad business.