We don’t know what you consider the Prime Directive of Training, but “First, do no harm” might be a good one. Above all, you don’t want training to make things worse!

But, according to new research, some well-meaning HR people and managers might be doing just that when they talk to employees about negative stereotypes and discrimination.

This research was conducted by professors at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School. The authors noted that behavioral studies have found stereotyping to be built-in behavior in human beings, something people do without thinking. They further noted that one approach to fighting negative stereotypes has been to acknowledge how common they are, so as to incite people to overcome their natural tendencies to create these stereotypes.

To test the effectiveness of that approach, the Wash U.-Darden team did a set of studies that looked at participants’ tendencies to stereotype about three groups of people – women, older people and overweight people.

Surprise, surprise
And they found something that may surprise you: The research subjects were more likely to stereotype these groups of people in a negative way when they were told that stereotyping was prevalent among the general population. This held true even when the study participants were also told that such stereotyping was bad and they shouldn’t do it.

In other words, by telling people that a lot of stereotyping is going on, you’re effectively giving them license to stereotype. This happens as a result of what’s called the “normative effect” – people feel it’s all right to behave the way others do.

OK, fine, so when you’re doing anti-discrimination training, you shouldn’t talk about how common stereotypes are. But what should you do?

We shall overcome
The researchers had a suggestion. Their results indicated that people were less likely to stereotype when they were told something like this: “While stereotyping persists, the vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypical preconceptions.”

See what this does? It creates a different norm – a norm where people are working to correct discriminatory stereotyping. When the normative effect kicks in after statements like these, it tends to push people not to stereotype. And that’s what you want among your employees.

Playing it out
In light of the research, then, let’s look at two examples of how a trainer might address the issue of stereotypes with an audience:

1) “As you know, discrimination based on stereotypes – about race, gender, nationality, religion, age, disability and so forth – remains a significant problem in this country, unfortunately. And although this organization has confidence in our employees, none of us is immune. That’s why we’re having this session.”

That’s the “everybody’s doing it” approach, and according to the research, it won’t work. More likely, it will unconsciously reinforce negative stereotypes by signaling to the audience that they are widespread in society.

2) “As you know, discrimination based on stereotypes – about race, gender, nationality, religion, age, disability and so forth – remains a problem. But there’s good news: Lots of Americans these days are conscious of the issue and are trying to avoid stereotyping. We wanted to present this training to help in your own efforts in this regard.”

Again according to the research, this approach is better, because it sets up a positive norm — i.e., your peers are trying to surmount their bad tendencies and so should you.

An uphill struggle
Anti-discrimination training is always hard. You’re fighting against tendencies that are deeply rooted in society and individuals, and often have been present for generations.

So the last thing you want is to make it harder. This research strongly indicates that if you normalize stereotyping by talking about its prevalence, you’re doing just that. If that’s the approach you’ve been taking, you may want to make some adjustments.

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