Blatant racism and sexism are against the law, but what about more subtle slights that demoralize talented employees? Is that discrimination—or are we just being too touchy? Learn how diversity leaders are fighting back against micro-inequities.
When white colleagues saw Michelle Miller* talking with her coworker clique, some would joke, “That looks like trouble!” Michelle, an African American, and her friends, one African American and one Middle Eastern, laughed it off at first. But as the comments became more pointed, the women—three of only ten minorities on a 100-person staff at a Richmond, VA, nonprofit—began to feel the remarks were racial in nature. “My boss actually said to me, ‘When the three of you are behind closed doors in your office, people are watching that,’” says Michelle. “Eventually, we were so harassed about our relationship that if we wanted to meet for lunch, we’d stagger what time we left and go in separate cars.”
Most people know better than to make blatantly prejudicial comments at work. But small actions—seemingly harmless jokes, greeting one colleague more enthusiastically than another, disregarding someone’s comments in a meeting—are more difficult to see as wrong because the offenders are typically unaware that they’re being offensive and the recipients are generally unsure how to react, often wondering if they’re just being oversensitive. Eventually, such prejudicial affronts can take their toll on an employee’s self-esteem and work performance. “It erodes your morale and puts you on the defensive,” Michelle says. Mary Rowe, PhD, adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at MIT, calls this subtle discrimi nation the “principal scaffolding for segregation” in the workplace.
In 1973, Dr. Rowe coined the term “micro-inequities” for such slights. She describes them as “apparently small events that are often hard to prove” but that “occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’” They’re a result of inherent biases regarding anything from gender and race to age and class—something we all have, adds Dr. Rowe—and are often based on experiences we had growing up that we then use to categorize. They’re expressed by gestures, words, treatment and tone of voice.
This stereotyping process isn’t necessarily bad; it’s when we attach judgments to it that problems arise. Since some of our strongest stereotypes are based on race and gender, women of color—in fact, women in general—may suffer the most from micro-inequities, especially as managers make assumptions about their ability to do their work.
Simi Nwogugu was pregnant when she was hired at a major New York City–based media company after completing an MBA at Harvard. Her female boss had decided to delay having children. “If I said I was tired or didn’t feel well, my boss would ask if I didn’t think I should have waited to have kids,” says Simi. Then, when Simi became pregnant again a year later, her boss told her she’d wanted a workhorse, not someone on the mommy track. “She asked if my having babies so early was a cultural thing,” says Simi, who is from Nigeria and was 31 at the time.
When Simi complained to human resources, she was told not to make a big deal out of it. It’s a common response to micro-inequities: The recipient is judged as being too touchy. “This kind of bias is unplanned, and it rarely makes it to the surface of people’s awareness,” says Stephen Young, founder of Insight Education Systems and author of Micromessaging: Why Great Leadership Is Beyond Words. “Therefore, I judge the person who brings it to my attention as being oversensitive, and the claim is dismissed. If this person persists, she’s seen as someone who is too angry, too sensitive—as someone who doesn’t fit in.”
Praise, not Prejudice
Given that this kind of prejudice is unconscious and hard to define, how, then, do forward-thinking companies deal with micro-inequities? The best way is to directly counter them with “micro- affirmations,” a term Dr. Rowe uses to define subtle messages that let employees know they’re doing well and are expected to succeed. “Such consistent, appropriate affirmation can spread from one person to another, potentially raising morale and productivity,” she says.
But to get to this point, companies must first help employees acknowledge their micro-messages, both pro and con. Unfortunately, experts say that most standard diversity training can be ineffective. Having gone through it, some employees feel it exempts them from having to think about issues surrounding bias in their day-to-day work lives.
Instead, companies should create programs that help employees recognize and discuss hidden biases year-round. It must be “in the company’s DNA,” says Allen Thomas, chief diversity officer and managing partner at Deloitte, one of our 2009 Best Companies for Multicultural Women. “We have two components to help deal with these issues: education—programs to make employees as aware as possible of their hidden biases—and a celebration of employees’ cultures.”
This second element is key, says Simi, who ultimately quit her job and now runs Hod Consulting in New York City, which helps organizations manage diversity. “The dominant group usually has good intentions when they say, ‘Let’s all get along and focus on commonalities,’” she suggests, “but the nondominant groups are very aware of their differences and want them to be acknowledged and celebrated.”
To that end, Deloitte offers online and in-person training programs. One has participants write the life stories of 30 individuals, based solely on their photographs. “We are visual in nature, and we look at people and things click without us even knowing,” says Thomas. “People build their stories around hidden biases, and quite often the story is very wrong.” After realizing the power of stereotypes, Thomas says, employees typically question their thinking and realize that they shouldn’t make judgments using common assumptions.
At PricewaterhouseCoopers, another of our Best Companies, programs help employees recognize “that we all have filters,” says Reggie Butler, managing director of diversity. Senior manager Jennifer Gale, who is white, participated in one. “Reggie asked a series of questions, and if we could answer yes, we went to the center of the room,” she says. “He started with mundane questions like ‘Do you own a car?’ but then asked things like ‘Have you ever told or laughed at a racist joke?’ It made you think, Gosh,I’ve done that.” Though uncomfortable facing these hidden biases, she learned to be more conscious about making assumptions based on people’s backgrounds.
And this, say experts, should be a company’s goal: to create an environment where employees can recognize their unintentional biases and work to overcome them. It’s more effective to emphasize inclusion than to punish exclusion. “Instead of placing blame or making people feel guilty,” says Butler, “we recognize that the solution is to create awareness, talk about the assumptions we all make and provide a safe environment for self-discovery.”
Bring Hidden Biases to Light
Think you’re experiencing micro-inequities at work? Here are four ways to identify and conquer hidden bias.
Test your Perceptions. Talk about your experiences with friends and colleagues to make sure that you are, in fact, being treated unfairly. Employment lawyer natalie Holder-Winfield tells of an african-american man who felt his white boss was racist because he never greeted him properly in the morning. “Just because the manager didn’t say good morning doesn’t make him racist. it could just mean he’s not a morning person.”
Look for patterns.** Behavior should be pervasive rather than a onetime incident. When Betty dominguez worked as an account representative at a financial services firm, she was routinely asked by her white male bosses to fill in for the secretaries, who were also Latina. “I was offended,” says Betty. “Why didn’t they ask my white colleagues or a guy? these people had very old ideas of workplace roles.”
Ask questions. Get the person making offensive statements to explain them. “Say ‘tell me more,’” advises Stephen Young, founder of insight Education Systems. By making the person elaborate, you force him to consider his words, and he’ll often recognize the bias on his own.
Speak up. Early in her career, Lily Tang had a white boss who would call her his “china doll.” It was meant as a compliment, and at the time Lily said nothing. “in asian culture, the idea of saving face and not embarrassing your boss is deeply rooted,” she says. “But if it happened today, I would let him know the impact of his words.”
*Name changed to protect privacy.