Navigating stereotype threat and identity management in the workplace

Individuals of all types can face bias in the workplace, conscious and unconscious. How they manage bias related to their social group membership is called “identity management” and can have serious consequences, not just for individuals but for managers and organizations too.

There is a lot of advice out there regarding unbiasing and what you can do to be conscious of your own unconscious biases. But what you may not be thinking about is how those who are the targets of stigmatization attempt to combat the bias they may face, and how that might affect your own behavior.

In research with a number of collaborators, I have examined how individuals who may be stigmatized in hiring and workplace contexts – women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, those with strong religious beliefs, older workers – manage their identity to address the biases, or stereotype threat, they may face.

Stereotype threat is the concern that one's behaviors may be perceived in light of a negative stereotype. Facing potential stereotype threat, individuals have the added cognitive and emotional burden of deciding (consciously or unconsciously) how best to minimize bias they may face, which social psychologists suggest may negatively impact performance. While we all think about how others are perceived and evaluated during a job interview (Does the interviewer seem to like me? Does he/she seem impressed by the experience?), an individual who is aware that a potential for bias against them exists may be engaged in an extra set of ruminations (Does the interviewer seem to be thinking of me in terms of my social categories and not my skills and capabilities? If I bring up “the elephant in the room,” will it work against me?).

In experiments we conducted, we found that it may be important for women to proactively counter stereotypes when applying for a job. A female applying for a leadership position in a male-dominated field could be consciously or unconsciously behaving in ways to combat bias. She may emphasize her stereotypically male leadership capabilities (being assertive, taking charge, showing the initiative) to show she is not like the stereotype, which we found resulted in favorable evaluations for female applicants. Conversely, the applicant may emphasize her stereotypically female leadership skills (being a nurturer of talent and a supportive boss) to show that prototypically feminine traits are strong leadership skills and a stereotype does not apply, but we found this resulted in negative personal evaluations.

While individuals often engage in identity management in response to stereotype threat, the onus shouldn't be placed on the employee. There are things hiring managers and organizations can do to ensure that candidates feel free to express their identities in authentic ways and are not unduly concerned about how to manage their identity to avoid bias. Research on stereotype threat in organizations – summarized in a recent article by Greg Walton, Mary Murphy, and myself – provides us with some starting directions.

  • Take a hard look at your environment. Small environmental cues regarding stereotypes that apply to a group can lead individuals to perform more poorly. Make sure your workplace does not indirectly convey that existing societal stereotypes might also operate there. In particular, look at the ambient cues – if all the founders of the company are male, displaying their portraits in the lobby may indirectly signal to women a bias toward men in leadership; if an individual in a wheelchair has difficulty navigating into your office for an interview, what does that signal?
  • Check your verbal and nonverbal alignment. Individuals concerned about bias are particularly attuned to whether there is a disconnect between verbal and nonverbal behavior – is this interviewer avoiding eye contact while saying I have a great resume? Is someone sitting at a distance or leaning away from me even though she says I would find this a welcoming workplace?
  • Be conscious of the added cognitive and emotional resource drain that potentially stigmatized individuals face. Perhaps a candidate is a bit more guarded and tentative in answering questions like “How do you see yourself fitting in here? How will you uniquely contribute?” Recognize that they are evaluating the potential for stereotyping associated with concepts like “fit” and are potentially working to formulate an answer to elicit less bias on your part.
  • Enhance identity safety during onboarding. When a group is underrepresented in an organization, it is important that individuals feel supported. Providing opportunities for networking and mentorship can enhance identity safety, particularly if started early in the onboarding process.

Ann Marie Ryan is a professor of organizational psychology at Michigan State University