Discrimination Through Micro-Aggression: An Up and Coming HR Problem

Discrimination, at least in its most obvious forms, is growing more and more rare in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. The new face of discrimination, which admittedly isn’t new at all, is micro-aggression. Many employers are beginning to acknowledge the problem, but aren’t entirely sure what to do about it.

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In Silicon Valley, the answer is clear: Unconscious bias training. But the question that remains is whether it’s working. If awareness is the goal, the answer is “Maybe.” If HR managers expect to see a measurable improvement, the answer is “Maybe not,” but it might still be a good place to begin.

What Constitutes Micro-Aggression

By definition, micro-aggressions aren’t blatant, in-your-face racist, sexist, or otherwise shockingly undeniable words or deeds. You won’t see them the same as overt acts of aggression, which also explains why the people responsible might not recognize the behavior in themselves. They’re subtler, but have a negative effect, whether individually or cumulatively.

Some examples of micro-aggressions include:

    • “You’re a credit to your race.”
    • “What are you?”
    • “I’m not racist, I have lots of friends (of color).”
    • Referring to a nurse who happens to be a man as a “male nurse.”
    • Referring to a woman who happens to be a doctor as a “female doctor.”

None of these examples appear to be an obnoxious attack. But all of them show that the person speaking has a predetermined idea of who the other person should be. They’re stereotypes, and they can be hurtful because those statements assume.

    • “People of your race aren’t ordinarily good.”
    • “You don’t look American, so what country are you really from?”
    • “I believe that I can’t be racist if I have friends of color.”
    • “Nurses are usually women, so you’re unusual.”
    • “Doctors are usually men, so you’re unusual.”

Where Micro-Aggressions Come From

College campuses are the scene of complaints and protests lately, say Human Resources Executive Online (HRE). Protesters say that a “lack of diversity and inclusion” has brought to light the slights, which can be verbal and non-verbal. They’re rooted in discrimination, even if the person speaking or acting doesn’t realize it.

That’s also why micro-aggressions can be so dangerous. Everyone has biases. In an overt situation, there’s no question about what’s happening. But micro-aggressions still make the discriminatory point. They serve to treat people differently, says ERE; they just do so more subtly.

Micro-aggressions are a growing concern for HR professionals because while the discrimination issues are simmering mainly in colleges, those students will graduate and enter the workforce. Attitudes and behaviors aren’t likely to change overnight, so it’s important for HR to recognize them.

Initial Steps that Some HR Managers are Taking

Diversity training, at least by traditional methods, probably won’t help, according to HRE, because it’s inherently exclusionary. Unconscious bias training, however, might because it’s designed to reach deeper.

For example, the Association of American Medical Colleges has offered training that helps people in the medical profession understand how personal biases affect hiring, management, communication and many other issues in the workplace. This type of training also explores how the biases develop, how to recognize them, and how to lessen the severity or eliminate the effects on others.

You can credit Google with identifying the need for unconscious bias training, says Forbes. Google treats unconscious bias as an affliction that everyone has, so no one feels singled out for training. But for Google, improvement so far is marginal, at best. And because training acknowledges that everyone has biases, some worry that the training could backfire, creating more micro-aggression as people come to accept their biases as an inherent thing.

Fewer cases of blatant discrimination are found in the workplace now, but the problem apparently still exists. Identifying unconscious bias might yet be a good starting point for handling micro-aggression, even if Google hasn’t experienced the results that they’d hoped.

It’s certainly a talking point for HR. Unconscious bias is in everyone, and it can affect everything from the way that employees interact with each other to job candidate sourcing and hiring, which ultimately affects diversity. What’s needed now is more effort focused on making better decisions throughout the hiring process in spite of unconscious biases.

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