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Everyone has unconscious biases. Though most “subtle acts of exclusion“ are not malicious, if people commit them unchecked, their effects can demoralize a workforce. Leaders seeking a more inclusive culture must discuss sensitive subjects like racism or sexism, even at the risk of getting the words wrong. Dr. Tiffany Jana and Dr. Michael Baran explain how your organization can put inclusive policies into place while never sugarcoating potential difficulties. They suggest activities for building awareness and inclusion, both important values that foster resilient teams of engaged employees.
- “Subtle acts of exclusion” (SAEs) are words or actions that spring from conscious or unconscious bias.
- To develop empathy, remember your own experiences of subtle marginalization or exclusion.
- If you are subjected to an act of exclusion – or see one – ask for a pause to shift to a more respectful conversation.
- For organizations, handling SAEs responsibly means creating accountability.
- Gender or sexuality often trigger SAEs.
- Race refers to physical distinctions between peoples. Ethnicity refers to cultural differences.
- “Privilege” exists when one group enjoys an advantage another group does not enjoy.
- Religion can be a sensitive subject, especially when one religion dominates.
- Age issues can trigger implicit bias.
- Approach equity, diversity and inclusion conversations with curiosity and open-mindedness and the expectation to grow and learn.
“Subtle acts of exclusion” (SAEs) are words or actions that spring from conscious or unconscious bias.
Everyone performs acts of exclusion, most often out of ignorance or unconscious bias. Every SAE has an individual or group “subject,” who may or may not be present. The person who commits the SAE is the “initiator.” Observers who speak up for the target of bias are “allies.” Those who remain silent are “bystanders.”
Inclusive corporate cultures insist that everyone should notice and call out SAEs when they happen. Initiators must understand how they have committed a transgression and, rather than become defensive, they should vow to do better. Inclusion makes everyone better at their jobs, more collaborative and more likely to stay with their companies.
“We have experienced firsthand people’s confusion over microaggressions, thinking that what matters is the speaker’s intent, when in fact what matters is the impact of the acts.”
Obvious discrimination and structural exclusion are easier to identify than SAEs, sometimes called “microaggressions.” This term is misleading, because people who commit these acts aren’t necessarily aggressive, and the impact of using discriminatory phrases or actions isn’t small. Someone who asks a Filipino, “What are you?” may be curious, but the question implies, “You’re not normal.” Someone who tells an African-American “I don’t even see you as black” may intend to be complimentary, but dismissing a person’s identity is hurtful. People who commit SAEs can imply that another person is invisible, inadequate or abnormal. They can suggest that the other person is not a part of an in-group and could be a burden or a threat.
To develop empathy, remember your own experiences of subtle marginalization or exclusion.
Think about a time when someone’s comment or action made you feel excluded because of your gender, ethnicity, race or income status. Reliving your experiences will help you know when to step up as an ally. Then recall how you felt when someone called you out on an SAE you committed. Perhaps you rejected the charge or overapologized.
“Speaking up is hard, knowing what to say is hard, receiving critical feedback is hard, too. None of these is as hard as constantly getting excluded by SAE and having people neglect or deny that it is going on.” ”
When you act as an ally, you signal your zero tolerance for SAEs. Politely make the initiator aware of the unintended slight and why it matters. Do not cause someone public embarrassment. That would be counterproductive. It could cause the conversation to go badly and prolong the time it takes to resolve the issue. And, you could lose a friend. Follow up with the initiator later to minimize any adverse effect of speaking up about his or her actions. If the subject was present, let that person know you’re available to listen, if necessary. Acknowledging the subject and the incident is crucial. Avoiding the topic can cause more pain.
If you are subjected to an act of exclusion – or see one – ask for a pause to shift to a more respectful conversation.
Within organizations that seek to be sensitive to SAEs, team members could agree on a word or words that signal the need to be aware or to pause to discuss a misstep. If you’re an observer, acknowledge that the SAE didn’t directly involve you, but that you committed to speaking up when you hear one. Everyone has unconscious biases. When someone says something inappropriate, don’t assume that he or she is racist, sexist, ageist or homophobic. Instead, invite the offender to participate in an open conversation in which the goal is learning and inclusion.
“It is not the SAE subject’s responsibility to teach you about the offending subtle act of exclusion. If they choose to enlighten you, consider that a gift and an act of trust.”
Explain what part of someone’s statement made you uncomfortable. After acknowledging that the initiator was probably unaware of committing the slight, you or the person who experienced the discrimination should explain why the comment or behavior was problematic. Expect the initiator to make an effort. If you are subject of the SAE, you may feel sad or angry. If you don’t have time for a thorough conversation or you feel rattled, agree to talk another time – but make sure that you do. Make a sincere effort to avoid similar SAEs in the future.
For organizations, handling SAEs responsibly means creating accountability.
Subtle acts of exclusion are inevitable when diverse teams work together. Expect and prepare for them. Acknowledging that people make mistakes helps take the judgment out of an intervention.
“When a male employee is never stopped from cutting off women and gender nonbinary people in meetings, it becomes an irritating burden to the people who are always being interrupted.”
Your organization has a legal obligation to protect employees from discrimination and to safeguard their mental and emotional health. Create a company culture in which people call out SAEs. Empower your human resource officers to intervene constructively when necessary. Thoughtless behavior that continues unchecked drives talented people away. Accountability policies prevent that. Executive leadership is fundamental to the success of a company-wide diversity and inclusion effort. As a leader, familiarize yourself with SAEs, emphasize that your company won’t tolerate discrimination – subtle or otherwise. Applaud and thank people who initiate SAE conversations, and become a role model for handling SAEs. If your company doesn’t have a SAE policy, suggest that top management adopt one or implement one for your team.
Gender or sexuality often trigger SAEs.
Just the terms around the subject of sex and gender can be confusing. Biological sex is the sex babies are born with; “gender” describes the ideas people have about biological sex in relation to social roles. “Cisgender” people identify with the gender role that accompanies their biological sex. Those who don’t align with their biological sex may self-identify as transgender. They may alter their appearance to fit their gender identity and may prefer to be referred to by the corresponding gender pronouns. Others reject gender, identify themselves as “gender nonconforming” or “gender fluid,” and prefer to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns like “they/them,” even in the singular, or “ze.”
“All these various gender identifications and expressions should be not only equally valued, but considered equally normal.”
People who are subjected to discrimination or harassment or who overhear inappropriate jokes or generalizations at the workplace may feel unwelcome. Team members should practice addressing biased acts, such as when a boss gives a man credit for a woman’s idea. To prevent SAEs in meetings, establish policies granting everyone equal time to speak. Listen attentively without interrupting. Restrain your curiosity about your co-workers’ personal lives, and don’t make assumptions. Progress in achieving diversity goals begins when each person become aware of his or her biases and how they can hurt others.
Race refers to people’s physical distinctions. Ethnicity refers to cultural differences.
When people ridicule non-Western sounding names or don’t attempt to pronounce them correctly, they convey that the other person is invisible or not normal. Asking people where they are from to probe their family background can be insulting because it implies that the person doesn’t belong. Using phrases like “you people” lumps someone into a group you hold preconceived ideas about, thus “otherizing” them. For example, black men often are subjected to an SAE when people walking toward them cross the street upon seeing them. Such an action implies, “You are a threat.”
“When someone accesses this language of separateness, the implication is rarely that the ‘other’ is superior. One essentially elevates oneself to a superior status using this language.”
Addressing bias is easier in a company that already conducts SAE training. Awareness allows subjects or witnesses to speak up and facilitate a productive conversation, whether it takes place now or later. It also makes accepting feedback easier for the initiator. Try not to generalize or make assumptions based on appearances. If you’re unsure of someone’s name, ask the person to repeat it, or spell it, to aid your memory.
“Privilege” exists when one group enjoys an advantage another group does not.
If you don’t have to consider how to move around or get into and out of buildings, or worry about depression or what functions you’ve lost due to a brain injury, you are ably privileged. One classic SAE that can offend disabled people is so-called “inspiration porn,” in which people hold up a disabled person’s accomplishments as somehow brave or not normal. Disabled people prefer to be treated like nondisabled people. Sometimes offering help is appropriate, but ask if the person needs assistance instead of assuming you know what he or she needs or can and can’t do. When Bill, a blind man, walks down a hallway and his colleagues silently move out of his way, he feels like a burden, but when they say, “Hi, Bill,” he has a helpful audio cue as to their location, and it’s more normalizing. Bunny, who is blind and uses a service dog, finds that people want to interact with her dog when she’s walking with him in public. Because she appears able-bodied, they don’t believe she has a disability. The implication is that she’s a curiosity.
Religion can be a sensitive subject, especially when one religion dominates.
Religion is the center of many people’s lives, though they may have colleagues who don’t believe a god exists or who are agnostics, that is, they don’t believe in a religion, but they also don’t deny the existence of a deity. Christianity greatly influences culture and even corporate holidays in the United States, but firms must also accommodate those of other faiths.
For instance, when David’s company scheduled an important meeting on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest holiday, he faced a dilemma with three bad options: He could request rescheduling, miss the meeting or interrupt his time with his family to participate in the meeting after going to synagogue. This is the equivalent of asking Christians to come to a meeting on Christmas. In David’s case, his company’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee stepped in to ask the organizers to reschedule the meeting. The firm solved David’s problem, but it still needs policies that respect each religion's important holidays.
“What does it really cost you to treat people kindly as they would like to be treated?”
In an organization with SAE practices and policies in place, David might have felt more comfortable asking the meeting’s organizers to change the date. The committee could have sent out a reminder not to schedule meetings on religious holidays in alignment with corporate inclusion goals.
Zara, a Muslim woman who wears a hijab, faced constant SAEs at work, such as dealing with obtaining appropriate food at gatherings, finding a place to pray during the day and explaining her head-covering. Shortly after President Donald Trump proposed a ban on Muslim immigration, she saw a framed picture of the president on a colleague’s desk. She wondered if this implied that her co-worker saw her as “a threat,” but she also understood that many people support their national leader apart from any single political policy. When personal political beliefs conflict with a corporate inclusion policy, SAE accountability programs can guide an organization’s response. Such guidelines are based on respect and include “assuming good intent, replacing defensiveness with curiosity and empathy, and listening actively.”
Age issues can trigger implicit bias.
Baby boomers and millennials both experience age-based stereotyping. People often dismiss millennials as lazy and addicted to their smartphones. Or, they presume that boomers are frail, absent-minded and hopeless at digital technology. When dealing with these two large workplace cohorts, be open and learn from them as individuals, recognizing – as with all SAE targets – that no single person represents an entire group.
“Starting in 2016, millennials became the largest single generation in the workplace. And yet, it is still acceptable for people to openly express stereotypes and biases against this entire generation.”
Linda, 51, went through several interviews for a position for which her experience was ideal. But the company turned her down because hiring officers felt she wouldn’t fit in with the “culture” of their mostly millennial workforce. The underlying message was, “You don’t belong here.” A blind résumé process could prevent such exclusionary results.
Approach equity, diversity and inclusion conversations with curiosity and open-mindedness and the expectation to grow and learn.
Corporate guidelines against subtle acts of exclusion have many benefits, including fostering trust and collaboration, creating a productive setting for feedback, helping everyone feel included, and establishing a culture of “transparency, interpersonal civility and accountability.”
“These things seem like minutiae in isolation but add up to a greater construct of either inclusive or exclusive behavior that ultimately shapes the world we live in.”
To gain a broader personal perspective about different cultural, religious, racial and gender points of view, you can pursue personal “intentional acts of inclusion,” such as expanding the media you follow. You have an instinct for knowing when something that someone says or does isn’t right. Listen to your inner voice of wisdom. Practice empathy. Each positive action builds a more equitable world.
About the Authors
TMI Portfolio’s CEO Tiffany Jana co-wrote Overcoming Bias. Scientist Michael Baran is a senior partner at inQUEST Consulting.
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