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November 22, 2019
Is Your Company Guilty Of These 2 Microaggressions?
Kamillah Knight

Our guest author Kamillah Knight is the Diversity and Inclusion Lead at Unilever. She was named a 2019 GreenBiz 30 Under 30 Honoree, and has a strong passion for how people interact with each other and the environment, and diversity and inclusion.

The old adage that actions speak louder than words is true—especially when it comes to microaggressions. (Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines a microaggression as everyday acts—purposeful or not—that communicate a hostile message to marginalized people.) Minorities are often the victim of behavior at work that may sound or seem supportive, but is actually subconsciously rooted in intolerant ideas.

The Kapor Center’s Tech Leavers study reported that unfairness-based turnover costs the tech sector $16 billion per year—with 37 percent of workers citing poor treatment as a major factor for leaving the company. Microaggressions, sadly, contribute to this—and aren’t isolated to the tech industry, either.         

Here are two microaggressions that your company needs to address to create an inclusive environment.   

1. Don’t Take Top Performers For Granted

In a meritocracy, people are given power based on their skills. Workers would earn promotions based on job performance alone. Women of color, unfortunately, don’t always feel this is the case: According to McKinsey and Co.’s 2019 Women in the Workplace report, only 15 percent of Latina and 11 percent of Black women feel that the most qualified candidates at work get promoted.

This perceived lack of fairness can make minority women feel like they’re being taken for granted—and turned into a “mule.” The mule stereotype, first described by author Nora Zeale Hurston, refers to the tremendous amount of manual labor black women are expected to perform without any additional benefits, per the Washington Post. Women of color can be top performers—with great visibility within the company—and still not see any career advancement.

While this lack of career growth affects women of color, it also alarmingly hinders all women’s careers. The McKinsey and Co. report describes the “broken rung” as the unequal rate in which men are promoted to managers over women. Women still only represent 38 percent of managers, making their climb up the corporate ladder that much harder.  

To promote diversity and inclusion, your company should actively look to promote not only top female performers, but all high-performing people of color. If you do this, you'll level the playing field and avoid taking your staff for granted.

2. Avoid ‘Stereotype Threats’

Let’s first start by explaining why stereotypes are negative: A stereotype is a commonly held belief that oversimplifies a person or a group of people. “Stereotype threats,” moreover, are an example of a microaggression. A stereotype threat is a situation where a minority feels they’re at risk of conforming to a negative stereotype about their group, according to Derald Wing Sue. 

When a boss compliments a person of color for how articulate the employee is, the boss is committing a microaggression. If one of the job requirements for the position is to be a strong communicator, wouldn’t you expect the staff member to possess that skill? The compliment, therefore, is negative stereotyping, because the leader expected the employee to confirm that minorities are inarticulate.

A study published in Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology found that Asian-Americans are subjected to this. They are often told that they “spoke good English,” implying that they weren’t born in this country—even if they were.

To prevent committing this microaggression—and other ones—here are some steps your organization can take:

· Educate all employees on what microaggressions are—and how to prevent them.

· Develop a training that does a deep dive specifically for managers that allows for a way of thinking to be embedded in the way that your people are managed.

· Create a program where mentors are purposefully assigned mentees that aren’t like them in order to create more allies within your company.

· Recruit in different spaces to ensure you’re attracting—and hiring—diverse candidates in order to create a more diverse staff.

Remember, actions do speak louder than words. The ones your company takes to prevent microaggressions from happening to your staff will result in an engaged—and a diverse and inclusive—workforce.


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