The Regressive Power of Labelling People As Vulnerable

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable

Madeleine L’Engle

In my first week as a housing officer I was introduced to a middle aged man who lived alone. The colleague I was training with leaned over to me as we stood outside his front door, pointed to a box on his tenancy file and said to me in a hushed tone, “careful – he’s a vulnerable customer”.

After the visit I questioned why he was vulnerable. “I don’t know” came the reply, “It’ll be on the file somewhere”. I later found out that he was earmarked as vulnerable by someone at the council before he had moved in, most likely because of a short jail sentence. No-one appeared to have questioned why he was still labelled as such. So here he was , a vulnerable customer in everyone’s eyes but his own, fifteen years later.

Last year I wrote a post called The Problem With Seeing People As Vulnerable. It proposed that the word vulnerable is used far too liberally across the charitable and social sectors. The very institutions that were set up to ‘do good things’ and to believe in people are often guilty of declaring swathes of the population in need of their help and support.

I certainly don’t think my tiny voice and platform can change much but I’ve been surprised and disappointed during COVID-19 at the increased labelling of certain groups as ‘vulnerable’.

This has been accompanied by a number of self-congratulatory messages with people declaring pride in their employees for ‘helping the vulnerable’, and proclaiming their vital role ‘protecting the vulnerable’. Some claim to have made hundreds of thousands of phone calls, all aimed at identifying and supporting, you guessed it, the most vulnerable people.

Certainly there is a group of people who are at risk of severe illness if they catch Coronavirus (indeed, I’m one of them), but interestingly the official NHS letter that people receive avoids addressing them as vulnerable, preferring ‘high risk’. The NHS , credit where it’s due, is clearly aiming to make advice specific and contextual – avoiding any euphemistic labelling.

How we label people is very important. Researchers began to study the cognitive effects of labelling in the 1930s when Benjamin Whorf proposed the linguistic relativity hypothesis. According to his work, the words we use to describe people aren’t just idle placeholders; they determine what we see.

Simply put, if we describe a group of people in a certain way it can influence the actions or decisions we take towards them.

This potentially increases the likelihood of othering, a social process, rooted in relationships of power through which ‘the poor and vulnerable’ are treated as different from the rest of society.  Seeing people as fundamentally different from ourselves makes it easier to blame people for their own and society’s problems – so that they themselves become the problem.

What’s my particular problem with vulnerability?

The term ‘vulnerable’ as used by the social sector conveys weakness. It implies a lack of agency or that the person has an increased likelihood that they might come into harms way. It implies that they cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other , ‘normal’, people.

It can of course be used correctly – to define a category of people who deserve special protection or consideration. In the vast majority of cases that I see it is not used in that way. Frequently the use of ‘vulnerable’ as a descriptor of people is curiously non-specific and often applied to huge groups of people who are anything but homogenous. We rarely hear what it is that people are vulnerable to, how this vulnerability is produced, or by whom.

No group of people is inherently vulnerable or a victim. If people are experiencing vulnerability in a particular situation that vulnerability is often produced by other people, institutions or circumstances.

As a designer, the most common piece of advice I’d give organisations is to resist putting people into boxes. The vulnerability box is perhaps one of the most dangerous of all as it:

  • Promotes a deficit mindset and encourages organisations to rush in and fill the gap with more ‘services’.
  • Leads to bad decisions – by putting disparate groups of people together in one convenient box.
  • It labels people and changes our behaviour towards them – reinforcing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving.
  • It overlooks the root causes of any vulnerability and indeed the role of the state and other institutions in perpetuating that vulnerability.
  • It presents the problem as if it stems from individual traits , life choices or misfortune.

Indeed, the paradox of employing the term of ‘vulnerability’ is that it makes people more vulnerable.

Ultimately though it’s a clumsy label as we are all vulnerable at points in our lives. Our current values and ideals portray vulnerability as undesirable and dangerous to our wellbeing when in reality, the opposite is true – our vulnerability is one of our assets. It allows us to connect with one another and to heal any division.

Perhaps if we stopped labelling others as vulnerable we’d be better placed to do just that.


Let’s make job descriptions inspirational….

About 3 months ago I posted a blog/rant about why most Job Descriptions are complete rubbish.

You know what I’m talking about. You read the one for the job you are doing now.

Uninspiring: Although you said it was really really exciting at interview.

Impenetrable: You had to search the web to understand some of the jargon.

Long. Very Long: You didn’t read all of it did you? Be honest.

If the typical manager/HR team had written a job description for Mo Farah it would very likely read:

“Needs to run 10,000m every couple of years , remain upright throughout and complete the task to an acceptable level. Your performance is subject to an annual review but don’t worry mate keep your head down and do your best – you won’t get fired.”

And then we would follow it with a load of waffle that states the bleeding obvious:

  • Must demonstrate ability to tie own laces
  • Punctuality when turning up for the race – essential
  • Performs other duties as required by the line manager

As I mentioned in the previous blog – my 5 rules are now these:

  1. Stick to a 140 Character Job Purpose
  2. 1 Page Total Job Description.
  3. Use a picture or graphic.
  4. Use passionate language.
  5. Describe how you want the person to make a difference.

A few people have asked what happened next. Did HR get it? Did a JD that included the word “Sexy” in its job purpose get past go?

Well , the answer is yes.

Here’s a quick sample from five of them. See what you think. Would it make you want to get out of bed in the morning?

“You are a teacher , a coach , a mentor and a shoulder to cry on….your mission is that no meeting you host will ever be boring.”

“You are responsible for making Volunteering sexy. You give people something to look forward to.”

‘You will live and breathe Connect – ensuring it delivers “Apple standard” performance to its users. You are responsible for whether it succeeds or fails.”

 “You believe that young people can create the jobs of the future. And you make it happen.”

“You are the first step in helping someone be the best they can be. You change lives”

Whether you love or loathe this – there is a genuine problem we all need to help solve. 1 in 4 of us don’t feel we reach our creative potential in the workplace.

And right now we need creativity , innovation and aspiration in our companies and communities more than ever before.

So let’s say goodbye to average. And aim for inspirational from the start.

Job Descriptions are rubbish…..My Top 5 new rules

The Worlds Worst Job Description. Ever
The Worlds Worst Job Description. Ever

Did some work on some JD’s this week. I’ve been messing around them for some time – really struggling to articulate what I wanted.

On Wednesday morning at 9:40am it struck me. Somebody , somewhere , about 50 or 60 years ago – decided what a JD should look and feel like. A lot of words (management words, not real words) describing a lot of tasks and job accountability. I’ve never questioned it.

Need to recruit someone? Yeah! Lets make their eyes bleed with 3 pages of total bollocks.

Most of the work we are now doing , and the work the economy desperately needs, requires people to have creativity , a sense of autonomy and certainly a high degree of purpose.

So why on earth would we put things like this in a JD?

“The post holder will also perform any additional duties at the request of the Manager” (Which means – you need to do as I tell you – I don’t  trust you)

“You will be responsible for completing a daily report at 9:30am that should outline the tasks you and your team achieved in the previous day” (Which means – I don’t trust you or anyone else who works for me)

“Postholder will be required to attend in a punctual manner and be well-presented at all times” (Which means – I don’t trust you to get out of bed. Or even to have a wash)

I didn’t make these up by the way – just did a quick search.

I think at Bromford we have shown a fair degree of innovation. But there is much to be done. Here’s my (personal) new rules for JD’s:

1: 140 Character Job Purpose – If you can’t sum it up in that you are waffling. Plus – you can advertise it on Twitter

2: 1 Page Total – Anything more than that means we are in 20th Century Management mode and being over prescriptive – squeezing creativity out of someone before they have even applied.

3: Use a picture or graphic. A picture that describes the purpose. If you can’t think of a really bold , emotive image to accompany the job then you probably don’t need to even recruit someone. You can probably get a spreadsheet to do it.

4: Passionate language. If you really want someone to get out bed in the morning knowing EXACTLY what they are here to do there is nothing wrong with including words like “inspiring” “brave” or even “sexy”. I’ve gone a step further this week and included lyrics from George Benson’s “The Greatest Love Of All” (or Whitney if you prefer ) and Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power”. Ridiculous? Maybe. No problem , don’t apply!

5: Stick to how you want the person to make a difference. Describe how you want the successful applicant to make people FEEL rather than a list of things you want them to do. I’ve amended one JD to say to I want them “to inspire people each and every day”. That’s their purpose. How they do that it is entirely up to them.

I’m not saying this is right. But let’s all try something different. There has to be a better way.

I’m with our HR team on Monday finishing them off. Wonder if Public Enemy will make the final cut?