Stigma-by-Association: How Follower Characteristics Influence Evaluation of Leaders

Evaluate Leaders
Topic(s): assessment, culture, decision making, discrimination, diversity, fairness, Judgment, leadership, motivation
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2015)
Article: The Role of Proximal Social Contexts: Assessing Stigma-by-Association Effects on Leader Appraisals
Authors: M. Hernandez, D.R. Avery, S. Tonidandel, M.R. Hebl, A.N. Smith & P.F. McKay
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Evaluation of leaders is becoming an increasingly important workplace topic. This is especially so, because some research suggests that racial disparities within the US workforce have increased over the last decade, as some minority groups are greatly underrepresented in positions of management. There may be a number of reasons for this, but new research (Hernandez, Avery, Tonidandel, Hebl, Smith, & McKay, 2015) suggest that one reason could be biased appraisals of leaders (i.e. evaluations of performance, value and competence) that occur due to characteristics of individuals in the group. This means that the racial composition of the leader’s group, influences opinions of that leader’s effectiveness.


The authors conducted a series of studies. The first revealed that when there were more African-American employees in a group, the leaders of these groups received lower appraisal ratings from observers. The subsequent studies confirmed that these social contexts do indeed have a significant effect on observer judgments of group leaders’ value and competence. Lower appraisal ratings were recorded on competence, performance, and value when the group composition was primarily made up of African-American employees.

Interestingly however, this bias was not found when the group was made up of entirely African-American employees, where appraisals were then similar to those of leaders of groups without African-Americans. Overall then, the level of observer appraisal ratings followed a U-shaped pattern when considering the total amount of African-American employees within a work group. Highest scores are predicted when the group is entirely African-American or entirely not African-American.

The study also showed that this unfortunate situation could be positively influenced by the presence of internal and external motivators to control personal bias. Internal motivators refer to a personal level of commitment to controlling bias, and external motivators refer more to outside influences that encourage adherence to fairer standards of appraisal. The results from the research highlight the important role that external motivators can make in reducing the impact of prejudiced evaluation of leaders. This was because external motivation could lower prejudice whether or not the individual had high or low internal motivation to control their prejudices.



These results have implications for the employee selection process. Organizations might want to look for employees who display characteristics associated with a predisposition against prejudice. These personality traits include agreeableness and openness to experience.

In the absence of internal motivation to control personal biases, organizations can protect against the detriments of this “stigma-by-association” through developing new organizational norms and structures, for example, through a hospitable diversity culture that promotes racial equality. Organizations can also reduce intergroup biases by developing an organizational identity that employees can buy into, and that transcends the influence of any particular group. Stronger identification with the organization can be facilitated by rewarding and recognizing the individuals whose efforts and performance enhance the organizational identity.

Organizations can also improve fairness by closely scrutinizing the process used for performance assessments and compensation evaluations. These evaluations should concern specific task examples and should not be based on raters’ general impressions of employees.