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How Microaggressions Can Wreck Your Business

Updated: Nov 19, 2015 8:05 PM UTC

Anyone who's been following the news about the campus turmoil across the U.S. in recent weeks has probably heard of "microaggressions"—the casual, everyday slights and insults that make clear that racial bias and sex discrimination haven’t gone away, they’ve just gone underground.

Take asking someone who looks Asian where they’re “really from" after they’ve said they were born and raised in New Jersey: That's a microaggression. So is a “Mexican-themed” frat party featuring sombreros and false moustaches, or expressing surprise that a new acquaintance from a different ethnic background is so fluent in English.

Of course, on a college campus, some of this can be chalked up to adolescent tactlessness. Who didn’t say some pretty dumb stuff when they were 19 or 20? But to the degree that microaggressions truly reflect stubborn underlying prejudices, managers need to take note. Today’s students are tomorrow’s hires or your company's next crop of interns, and they're much more sensitized to this than their older brothers and sisters were.

“Unlike more blatant forms of prejudice that have become socially unacceptable, and despite our supposedly 'post-racial society,' microaggressions aren’t going away,” notes David Mayer, who teaches management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross B-school. “Naturally, young people joining the workforce are going to bring that heightened awareness with them.”

Although the attention they’re getting lately is new, the idea of microaggressions isn't. The term was coined back in 1970 by psychiatrist and Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce, and the phenomenon has been the subject of at least 5,500 academic studies over the past decade—including one last January that found that women of color in STEM professions reported they are regularly mistaken for janitors.

The people who made that mistake would probably be horrified to be labeled as racist, sexist, or both, and that’s a big part of what makes microaggressions so insidious. A microaggression is an unintended insult, perpetrated by someone who means no offense, and who may not even realize they’ve said or done anything wrong.

“One way to define a microaggression is, it’s inadvertent,” says Katherine W. Phillips, who teaches leadership and ethics at Columbia B-school. “It’s the way people’s implicit biases leak out.”

Everybody has biases. That’s why implicit-bias training is in vogue at so many companies, from Coca-Cola, Facebook, Airbnb, and Pinterest to Google and the Royal Bank of Canada. What matters, though, is what people do about their implicit biases once they’ve recognized them.

If you’re lucky, you work for a company that has gone beyond the training phase and put in systems and processes designed to push back against implicit bias. Some employers, for instance, now require objective skills tests and structured interviews during hiring. These not only are more sensitive, but they are also better predictors of actual job performance than letting hiring managers’ unconscious biases hold sway, notes Prof. Mayer at the Ross school.

Similarly, he adds, some companies require managers to choose among resumes where the names have been stripped out.

“Many people react differently to the exact same resume, without even realizing it, depending on whether the name at the top is Jamal, James, or Jill,” Prof. Mayer says.

But what if your company isn’t doing any of that (at least not yet)? How can you, one lone manager, make sure that microaggressions in your workplace don’t make it harder to attract and retain young talent?

A good beginning is to make some clear ground rules that apply to everyone, about the level of courtesy you consider acceptable. “You want to create an environment where all employees treat each other professionally and respectfully. No exceptions,” says Sondra Thiederman, a speaker and consultant on diversity who has worked with managers at Boeing, Motorola, GM, Pfizer, Xerox, American Express, and elsewhere.

The next step: “Encourage anyone who feels he or she has been the target of a microaggression to speak up. Get people together to talk about it," she says.

These conversations usually aren’t easy. “If someone seems to be overreacting to something someone else said, you are probably going to have at least one member of the group who will say, ‘Oh, come on, get over it, I’m a white guy and that happens to me all the time,'” says Thiederman. “It's uncomfortable. But you need that. People have to talk it out—even argue about it.”

The alternative is to let people’s resentments and feelings of exclusion, build up to a boiling point. That’s when your most in-demand young talent will quit and go elsewhere, most likely without saying why.

It helps, Thiederman notes, if you can find some way to help employees discover what they have in common. Affinity groups at companies have expanded in recent years to include “eldercare groups, or adoptive-parent groups, or anything that serves as common ground for people of all races, ages, and sexes,” she says. “At some companies, getting everyone together to do volunteer work fills this purpose.”

Beyond the warm fuzzies employees get from finding common cause, Thiederman points out, the personal connections are good for business. “People who know each other as more than just colleagues tend to trust each other more—and you need that trust if you’re going to have honest conversations,” she says.

It also helps if you’re willing to acknowledge your own implicit biases, and work on changing them. Some managers, like most humans, resist that. “When you tie unconscious biases to self-worth, people get very defensive,” says David Mayer. “But this is not a test of whether you’re a ‘bad person.’”

Instead, he often suggests to his B-school students that they regard tackling their unconscious biases dispassionately, as a project they're working on or a skill they need to improve to be better at their job.

In the current social climate, he adds, that’s exactly what it is. “Managers who can’t recognize microaggressions, or who don’t take them seriously," he says, "are not going to be able to relate to the next generation of employees.”