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Combating microaggressions: how C-suite leadership can foster inclusion

When it comes to the workplace, employers should be aware that building the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion contributes to employees’ sense of belonging within the organisation. Fostering an inclusive environment should not be a new topic for C-level managers and HR departments.

Given the dismissal of many diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) teams in some of the world’s largest companies recently, however, the need to address inclusion remains an enduring topic. Creating a space for employees to feel comfortable is certainly an issue that, for most businesses, is here to stay.

Since 2021, more than £160,000 has been spent by the government on consultants to train staff on what are termed ‘microaggressions’, while the Education and Skills Funding Agency has spent more than £1,000 per worker on microaggression training for a small number of staff. Clearly, microaggressions in the workplace are a serious issue that warrants our attention.

How to cultivate inclusive language in the workplace

But what are the best ways for managers to prevent microaggressions from creating a toxic work environment? Here, we explore three ways that the C-suite can identify and prevent microaggressions from creeping into their workplace culture.

Educating about DE&I and bias

Organising regular DE&I training sessions that promote understanding and sensitivity towards marginalised groups can help to reduce the impact of bias. Microaggressions, often stemming from unconscious biases towards stigmatised or culturally marginalised groups, can surface in everyday vocabulary as expressions that might not seem upsetting in one context, but are deeply inappropriate or offensive in another. Educating employees about marginalised groups, their histories and the struggles they face can help prevent such microaggressions.

The causes of microaggressions can be explained by a subfield of linguistics, known as ‘pragmatics': what helps people frame the context of a discussion is the result of years of status quo reinforcement. These are driven by cognitive biases like the ‘false consensus effect’, causing people to assume that others share their opinions and understandings, and  ‘confirmation bias’, which is the tendency to focus attention on information that supports what one thinks they already know.

For example, someone might say: ‘There are so many terms for how we refer to people nowadays, you can’t say anything any more…’ as they could assume that everyone agrees with this opinion, showcasing a lack of understanding about appropriate language use, especially within the LGBTQ+ community. Providing DE&I training can help to ensure that staff members understand the nuances of gender identity terminology and the importance of accepting how a person identifies, thus avoiding unintentional microaggressions.

Implementing a clear reporting system

An employee may have experienced a microaggression and decided not to say anything because they feel hurt and unable to speak out at that moment. It’s crucial to empower employees to speak up and voice their concerns, to help normalise such actions and create a culture where everyone watches out for each other.

Use microaffirmations every day to build inclusion

Managers should establish clear reporting systems and create a safe place, by designating HR professionals or DE&I officers as point of contacts for flagging microaggressions. Confidentiality must be maintained to ensure a safe reporting environment, and any biases underlying reported microaggressions should then be addressed in subsequent DE&I training, to prevent recurrence.

Anybody who witnesses microaggressions in the workplace should address them promptly, one on one. Micro-interventions can effectively help counteract microaggressions in a non-confrontational manner by promoting inclusivity and disrupting bias in the moment. For example, when witnessing a microaggression, a good micro-intervention would be: ‘What do you mean by that? I’m not sure I understand’, ‘That sounds like a generalisation’, or ‘I wouldn’t say this.’ By taking a proactive stance against discrimination and bias, managers can set a precedent for a workplace that values inclusion and fosters a positive and accepting environment.

Embracing belonging

Ensuring that inclusion is felt in the workplace is the key to fostering employees’ sense of belonging. You may have a diverse workforce, however if people are not listened to, recognised for their life experiences, feel safe or made to feel safe, then they will not feel included. For managers and HR departments, my advice is to take an active role in setting up the relevant procedures to help the feeling of inclusivity to flourish; without this, there is no belonging.

Are you doing diversity training right?

A diverse team will be made up of employees with differences regarding age, nationality, ethnicity, faith, personal history, professional background, gender or political preferences. By embracing diversity and inclusivity, companies cultivate a culture that not only accepts but celebrates differences. This will help to mitigate and educate people in the workforce about microaggressions, which in turn helps businesses to look forward to a brighter future.

By Thomas Liano, DE&I ambassador lead and cultural expert at Babbel