Part of creating an inclusive workplace is analyzing how your behavior and unconscious beliefs affect your coworkers and company culture. 

It comes as no surprise that nearly 80% of employees value diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, according to a CNBC survey. A company culture of belonging and inclusion is beneficial for all. 

“Workers who are satisfied with their company’s [DEI] efforts are actually happier with their jobs,” explains Laura Wronski, Director of Research at SurveyMonkey. 

A crucial part of fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace is putting in the work on an individual level. This means taking the time to learn how your behavior and beliefs, whether they are conscious or not, affect your coworkers and team culture. 

Identifying and addressing one's biases and behaviors can be an uncomfortable process, but doing so creates a more inclusive and respectful workplace. 

Never stop learning, asking for feedback, and initiating tough conversations. 

What is the Definition of Unconscious Bias?

Also known as implicit bias, unconscious bias is defined by Harvard’s School of Public Health as “snap judgements we make about people and situations based upon years of subconscious socialization.”

Unconscious bias can be based on race, gender, religion, education, disability, age, occupation, and other factors. 

Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a psychologist at Harvard, specifies, “The human brain is hardwired to make quick decisions that draw on a variety of assumptions and experiences without us even knowing it is doing so, meaning that our unconscious predispositions can influence our decision making.”

Bias may come from our families, communities, school, personal experiences, and the media.

Bias in the Workplace

Unconscious bias presents itself in a variety of ways in the professional world, including who we give projects to, who we become work friends with, how our tone changes with different clients, etc.

From a management perspective, bias may come into play when managing workplace conflicts, creating performance improvement plans, and predetermining an employee’s workload. 

The effects of bias in the office include:

  • Microaggressions
  • Unintentionally upsetting a colleague
  • HR mediation
  • Lower retention rates
  • PR challenges
  • Negative company reviews 

What Are Microaggressions?

First introduced as a term in the 1970s by a Harvard psychiatrist, microaggressions are defined as slights, snubs, or “…behavior directed at a member of an underrepresented group that has a negative, harmful effect.” 

Usually rooted in unconscious bias, microaggressions occur on an interpersonal level and can be verbal or non-verbal. Although microaggressions are often innocent in nature, they have hurtful implications. 

“Even if we don’t mean for something to be discriminatory, it can still be discriminatory,” remarks Beth Castle, a journalist who writes about diversity, inclusion, and workplace rights. “Intention is not reality.”

Examples of microaggressions include:

1. “But where are you really from?” 

For non-white communities, this question gets tiresome, writes journalist and NYU adjunct professor Tanzina Vega for CNN. “Asking about race or ethnicity is a personal question that [should] be reserved for more intimate conversations [not at work].”

Business Insider elaborates that “receiving that question again and again can imply that a person isn't really American or doesn't truly belong in their country, just because of their appearance.”

2.“You’re so articulate!” 

 “When we register surprise at…an individual's articulateness, we also send the not-so-subtle message that that person is part of a group that we don't expect to see sitting at the table, taking on a leadership role," Business Insider explains.

3. “Your name is super hard to pronounce. What about just going by your initials?”

This question may make recipients feel like they "do not fit in culturally or linguistically, and that their identity is not worth taking time to learn about," says Christine Mallinson, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

4. “You’re so brave for overcoming your disability.”

While this statement seems innocuous enough, don’t single out people with disabilities and label them as brave or inspiring for simply existing. 

Impacts of Microaggressions in the Office

Microaggressions have a significant impact on individuals and the workplace as a whole. While a single microaggression may not seem initially damaging, resentment builds over time as they continue occurring.

The Muse states, “People from underrepresented and marginalized groups experience microaggressions on a daily basis and after a while, it understandably will wear on a person—it’s like ‘death by a thousand papercuts.’”

In the workplace, microaggressions can cause resentment, lower retention rates, and damaged relationships.  

They can also manifest into physical problems over time. According to USA Today, “Decades of medical research have found that microaggressions contribute to depression and health problems such as high blood pressure.”

How to Handle Conversations about Microaggressions 

If you receive feedback from a coworker regarding microaggressive behavior, the Muse recommends listening to their concerns and understanding the impact you made. 

Resist the temptation to say it was just a joke or tell the person they are being overly sensitive, as those reactions further perpetrate the hurt.

Offer a sincere apology and reflect on what happened to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Once you’ve apologized and recognized how to avoid a similar situation in the future, the Muse suggests that you “…try to let it go and move on. These things happen and it’s important to remember we’re human and we make mistakes.”

Offset Unconscious Bias and Microaggressions

While you can’t singlehandedly eliminate all biases, microaggressions, and harmful behaviors from the office, you can flip the script with the help of microvalidations. 

Harvard Business Review calls microvalidations the antidote to microaggressions and defines these as “small, positive actions that encourage or affirm.” Focus on colleagues’ contributions and potential. Offer sincere compliments, support, and encouragement.

Ways you can incorporate microvalidations into your professional life: 

1. Make colleagues feel welcome by acknowledging their presence. Harvard Business Review suggests: “…show your interest and respect when someone enters the room. Give a nod, a warm smile, or a greeting.”

2. Validate people’s identities by calling them by their preferred name. Don’t comment on difficult pronunciations or try to shorten names. 

3. Highlight others’ achievements. Support coworkers and employees by voicing your appreciation and giving them shout-outs when work is well done.

4. Be an active listener. Give coworkers your undivided attention when they’re speaking. Maintain eye contact and nod or smile as you listen.

Never stop learning, asking for feedback, and initiating difficult conversations. It’s not easy, but it helps pave the way for a more respectful and open company culture.

If you’re interested in learning more about microaggressions and unconscious bias, check out our Toolbox Talk featuring Noelle Johnson, a global DEIB strategist and Assistant Director of DE&I Learning and Development.