27 September 2023

Passive aggressive: How unseen discrimination can trash productivity

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Gwen Moran* says subtle, biased behaviour can have far-reaching consequences for an organisation’s productivity and ability to retain valuable staff.

Photo: K Zenon

Most organisations take an all-hands-on-deck approach to recruiting and retaining good employees.

But, ignorance or carelessness might be undermining your efforts with women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, and others.

Subtle bias and “microaggressions” — brief and commonplace verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities often directed at members of marginalised groups — can create problems in the workplace, says diversity consultant and Associate Professor of Psychology at Empire State College in New York, Gina C. Torino.

This type of bias may be unintentional, but it’s no less damaging.

Understanding the scope

The workplace is not immune to the biases that exist in society, so it’s important to consider the issue in a larger context, says Faye Wattleton, who co-leads corporate governance practice at a New York executive search firm.

Because people come to the workplace with the experience of dealing with these behaviours in everyday life, facing them in the workplace, too, where their livelihoods may be affected, is part of bias’s cumulative negative impact.

You can’t simply isolate this as a workplace issue, she says.

And because the perpetrator of the bias is often unaware that they’re acting in such a way, the person on the receiving end is left with few ways to address it without seeming like they’re overreacting.

“The psychologists say that these subtleties are more damaging because you can’t encounter them directly,” Wattleton says.

“You can’t confront them directly so that there’s a way of resolving the feeling that you have that may be internalised and may affect the way you function as a human being or as you function in the workplace.”

The consequences of bias

But just because microaggressions can be vague doesn’t mean that they don’t have real costs, says former US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attorney Stephen M. Paskoff.

When people feel excluded, they’re less likely to speak up.

Microaggressions can affect everything from the ability to listen to communication about safety issues or other problems.

When some employees avoid others, either because of bias or not wanting to deal with biased behaviour, productivity takes a hit, too.

“One of the questions I’ll ask groups is, ‘Who does their best work when they’re ignored, embarrassed, not listened to, made fun of, or one way or another treated differently in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable in their team or in their group?’,” Paskoff says.

“Those are all variations of what you might call microaggressions or could be.”

“We’ve groomed people to focus on the blatant and the illegal, not recognising that this other stuff can be just as malignant in a sense.”

The immediate response to a microaggression takes up cognitive and emotional energy that could be used in the person’s work.

“Dealing with that microaggression can really take up a person’s resources, because that person has to stop and think, saying, ‘Is this a slight? Did that person actually sit far away from me in the meeting because I’m black or because they just wanted to sit by that person?’,” Torino says.

“Or, ‘Did they not include me in going out to the bar after work because I’m a woman or because they already knew each other beforehand?’.”

Ultimately, the person experiencing biased behaviour toward them may feel excluded, unwelcome, or worse.

And that’s a problem.

A 2016 survey by Ultimate Software found that six in 10 employees would quit a job immediately if they felt emotionally unsafe, so off-handed comments and biased behaviour could affect your turnover.

Overcoming subtle bias

At London-based management consulting firm EY, to help foster a sense of belonging, “we ask our leaders to reflect on with each other: Is a decision somebody’s making a preference, a tradition, or a requirement [called PTR]?” says Karyn Twaronite, global diversity and inclusiveness officer.

“That can help surface the thoughts and biases that might be underlying certain processes.”

“It’s also a way to call a colleague out without calling them out.”

Here’s how it works: if she sees a colleague considering hiring someone exactly like them, she can say, “Did you pick this person because it’s your personal preference, or because of likeness and sameness, which is the ease of doing business, which is a very real thing, or is it because the person that traditionally has been in this role always looked and acted this way, and had the same skill set, or are you selecting them because they meet the requirements for the future?”

Twaronite says the exercise gets people to think beyond their preferences and consider a broader picture.

Mentoring can be another important step toward fostering understanding and decreasing bias, says Kyle Emich, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Delaware.

But, to be most effective, the mentor and protégé should be different.

“What you find a lot of time is that … minorities and women make up about the same percentage as white men at an entry level,” he says.

“The problem is getting people to those leadership positions.”

“They trickle out throughout the way.”

The experts agree that one of the most powerful actions individuals and organisations can take to reduce subtle forms of bias and microaggressions is to foster awareness of the behaviour.

When you create an environment where people can learn about bad behaviour they don’t even realise they’re exhibiting, you foster communication instead of defensiveness and resentment.

“I think it’s much easier to grapple with this difficult phenomenon when the organisation attacks it from a corporate perspective as we do sexual harassment — a consciousness-building about what can be said and what is said that often is perceived as harassment [when] people may not have encountered that kind of knowledge or that kind of perception,” Wattleton says.

And when awareness is raised in the workplace, it may just have a positive benefit in other areas of society, too.

* Gwen Moran is a professional writer. She tweets at @gwenmoran and her website is gwenmoran.com.

This article first appeared at www.fastcompany.com.

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