Microaggressions Could Lead to a Blowup in Your Company

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Today’s guest opinion piece is authored by Lisa Gelobter, co-founder of a confidential platform focused on addressing workplace discrimination, bias, and harassment. Read more about raceAhead’s call for essay submissions here.

Microaggressions may be a ticking time bomb in your company culture.

Last month, 12 Facebook employees published a post to Medium, alleging incidents of racial discrimination at the company and detailing a disturbing picture of the workplace culture.

“We may be smiling,” they wrote. But “[o]n the inside, we are sad. Angry. Oppressed. Depressed. And treated every day through the micro and macro aggressions as if we do not belong here.”

They’re not the only ones. In a 2019 Deloitte survey of 3,000 employees, of those who said they experienced discrimination at work, 83% said the bias was “indirect and subtle.” In other words, they experienced microaggressions.

Psychologist and Microaggressions in Everyday Life author Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as constant “slights, insults, invalidations, and indignities visited upon marginalized groups,” whether intentional or not.

They are pervasive, and often unconsciously delivered. Some common examples, pulled from data submitted by workers through my tEQuitable platform, include:

  • “You’re Black, but you’re so articulate.”
  • “You’re too pretty to be an engineer.”
  • “No, but where are you really from?”
  • “I couldn’t even tell you were disabled.”

What makes microaggressions so insidious within company cultures is their defining characteristic—they are micro. And they are frequently casually dismissed. Often, employees don’t report these issues to HR because it feels like a disproportionate reaction to a passing comment or snub. But the buildup has consequences: it can create an invalidating work environment, affect mental health, hinder productivity, and ultimately reinforce the glass-ceiling that marginalized groups face, according to Sue’s research.

The subtlety of microaggressions, however, doesn’t give employers an excuse not to address it.

Companies need to embrace the realities of a diverse population, and proactively enable and encourage difficult topics to surface through public conversations. And business leaders need to hold themselves accountable to validating the experiences of their entire workforce, especially underrepresented minorities. An inclusive culture means employees feel safe in a workplace culture that truly understands them.

The more a company includes all employee realities into the fabric of company identity and culture, the more aware they will be of microaggressions and can address them.

And these are some of the actions business leaders can take:

  • Provide an independent, impartial channel for employees to surface microaggressions. Employees need a neutral, safe place to get help with these issues as they arise. Establishing an independent, confidential, and informal channel through an organizational ombudsman, or partnering with an external resource adhering to those same principles, can provide employees with the security and privacy they need to come forward. Garnering employees’ trust is step one. Within the first 3 months of the launch of tEQuitable at 15 companies, over 20% of the total employee base visited the platform, underscoring the need for an independent, confidential and off-the-record solution.
  • Empower employees with an avenue to get just-in-time advice, strategies, and tools to best address their situation. Companies should provide all workers, including bystanders and allies, with in-the-moment coaching that includes learning modules tailored to having topical, hard conversations; stories of similar workplace experiences so employees don’t feel so alone; and even the ability to speak with a professional for one-on-one advice. This diversity of training options can teach employees how to handle issues directly themselves, without letting them fester or escalate. It fosters a company culture of healthy and open communication. Giving employees some agency and arming them to directly deal with everyday microaggressions is the most effective way to eliminate them from the workplace.
  • Reduce unfair treatment by using data to drive specific actionable steps. Find the patterns in microaggressions and microinequities as they occur and identify trends of systemic issues within a company’s culture. What types of biases are employees facing? Does it have to do with their race, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation? If management can identify sources of friction, whether a particular office location, a specific team dynamic, a range of types of behaviors, or other cultural indicators (like executive communication and management relationships), then it can implement specific, concrete remediation to mitigate marginalizing behaviors. (And that can range from creating a book club to restructuring personnel reviews.)

Does it take a conscious effort to find the ticking time bombs of microaggressions in a company’s culture? Yes. But only by addressing them is there then a chance at creating a truly effective action plan for dealing with cultural issues that give rise to unfair treatment.

Because by the time employees are publishing anonymous posts about the company, that ticking time bomb has already gone off.

Lisa Gelobter is CEO and co-founder of tEQuitable.

Tamara El-Waylly curated and wrote the blurbs in this edition of raceAhead.

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