Labelled with Love…please, no


There is a huge need for society to shake off the necessity to label every one of us. This may seem a little contradictive of me to say, given the fact that Inclusive Companies asks many different business’ to complete surveys requesting their data about a great number of protected groups? Where would the Inclusive Top 50 UK Employers List and the National Diversity Awards be without the very labels I seem to be decrying?

A very valid point. And I’m not saying that, as we currently stand, they are not needed. But it is why I chose the aspect of ‘love’ to draw attention to this concern. The labelling is done out of the desire to identify and group people into categories. This certainly helps when looking at diversification…on the surface, only. It also helps when looking at inclusion…but, again, it only offers a picture which is, literally in some cases, skin deep.

You have heard me say before that diversity and inclusion do not equal equity. And this means we do not achieve equality, which has to be our goal.

I am not a Number

I seem to be relying a little on popular culture today but Patrick McGoohan’s famous cry in The Prisoner hits the point I’m trying to make. If you give a person a number you take away their characteristics; the things that make them who they are. A number generalises and categorises, just as a label does. In the case of the latter, it is nearly always done with good intentions. In the instance of goods in a supermarket we would be pretty lost without labels. But they don’t work for people.

Labels stereotype people based on superficial characteristics. They fail to recognise the unique experiences, perspectives and identity of each person.

More Harm than Good?

Add to this the fact that they can also do the very thing that they are being used to address in the case of EDI. They may actually create biases which are harmful and limiting. They may reinforce existing power imbalances and inequalities in society as people have their ideas on ‘privilege’ (a label for another post!) and those they believe to be marginalised based on their perceived identity.

In an ideal world, we would do away with labels: have a situation where everyone is welcome on all fronts. But the day when we look at everyone as an individual rather than saying’ Oh, you’re from a race/religious/gender background (to name but a few) you must live/behave/think in a certain way’ is a long way away.

Organisations can make a start and contribute to a life without lables by having more meaningful conversations with individuals within their workforces. This way, they will recognise the talent within that person rather than pigeonholing them and making assumptions based on their diversity.

Use them with Love

We know the value of networks in supporting people and educating us all. They should be shaping your organisation’s policies, practices and thinking. And without specific labels this would be far harder to achieve.  But, of course, the inherent irony is that the label is there to bring together and then to open the doors; that is, effectively, to remove the barriers a label can create. Yes, it’s difficult.

Of course, within the world in which we live, some people wear their ‘labels’ with pride: doing away with them may risk undermining the very characteristics of which people are proud. A person may be very proud to be of a certain religion, for example, and wish to be identified that way. We also have the Race and Equality Act – a massive step forward in the recognition and empowerment of people. If we remove race how do we know if any specific person is covered? The conundrum continues. We need laws to protect people and to prevent discrimination. If a person has a disability, this needs to be recognised.

Where to draw the line?

I’m a black male. But I don’t want to be judged on this criterion. I come back to stereotypes and intentional/unintentional bias. And we know bias is still there within the workplace. We are all guilty of harbouring prejudice and, whilst it may well be unintentional, this makes it impossible to remove. What I want you to do in your organisation is to strive to get to know your workforce as individuals. If you look beyond the PC label, it will become a more equitable place for all. You can still celebrate the diversity within your organisation by learning about individuals’ lives and values. And you know what? It will still include labels, but they won’t define who those people are.

How do you get there?

It starts with new metrics when recruiting. Strip away the labels when interviewing and look at the person. What have they achieved? What is their work like? Are they capable of taking it to the next level?  Do they have the desire? It becomes meritocratic.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about this is to become a child again. Look at how they respond to one another when they’re very young. They don’t see the colour of someone’s skin; they don’t dwell on someone’s disability; they don’t pass judgement on someone’s faith. They accept the person for who they are and how they behave. It is only as they grow up and are affected by the adult world that they begin to question and start to harbour prejudices.

Changing habits and views is a gradual process: this won’t happen overnight. But if you start now with a revised recruitment strategy and bring people into your organisation based on different values this, in turn, will help educate and challenge colleagues’ perception. Change will happen gradually: remember today’s employees are tomorrow’s managers.

It won’t be easy

Looking at people for who they are, not what they are, doesn’t sound too difficult. But achieving equity with no labels is going to be a gradual process that has to be our goal. My dream is a workplace, and by that I mean a world, where EDI does not exist. Where we no longer need labels because we have true equality. Now that would be a label of love.


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