How privileged employees can help protect victims of microaggression

For many people from underrepresented groups, hostile aggression is a part of everyday life. Abi Adamson explains how privileged employees can prevent this

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What does ‘positive privilege’ mean?

To use privilege positively, an individual first has to acknowledge that they have a set of unearned benefits that individuals in underrepresented groups – including, but not limited to, race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion – do not. Notably, privileged people have significant access to resources and social power.

To use privilege positively is to be an active ally to those with less access, and to take responsibility for making changes which will help others be successful.

Acknowledge that privilege can be destructive

Sadly, abuses of privilege, widespread bias and prejudice, and covert microaggressions exist from the top to the bottom of businesses. 

The truth is, many marginalised people have become accustomed to facing daily microaggression and discrimination. In fact, it is so rife within our societies and workplaces that I’d be surprised to meet someone who had never witnessed, or been privy to, such behaviour. 

On reflection, I’ve lost count of the statements I’ve heard and behaviours I’ve witnessed that generalise women as inferior to men, as incompetent, unintelligent or too emotional to do their job.

How to use privilege to stop toxic situations

The sad reality is that in most instances when harm has taken place, someone in a position of privilege – often a leader or manager – has failed to interrupt. In other words, an ally has existed, but has not stepped in to protect the victim. 

Let’s acknowledge that workplace confrontation is something we would all rather avoid. However, if you are able to ‘call in’ or ‘call out’ prejudice by arming yourself with timely expressions and intentional language, you will not only be helping to protect an individual who is facing microaggression, but you will also be breaking a harmful and oppressive status quo.

‘Calling in’ and ‘calling out’ to interrupt harm

‘Calling in’ is when you give the wrongdoer the opportunity to explore why they said what they said, and why they did what they did. The intention is to help people understand that what they said has caused harm to another person.

In other words, ‘calling in’ involves helping someone who has caused harm match their behaviour with their intention. It is taking an empathetic approach with the wrongdoer, giving them the space and grace to make mistakes, and with education, giving them a chance to do better.

‘Calling out’ is when you step in to let the wrongdoer know that their behaviour is unacceptable and is causing harm to someone, or a group of people. 

In other words, you interrupt a live situation to prevent further trauma. If you are in the privileged position of leadership, you may let them know that the discriminatory or prejudicial behaviours that they're exhibiting do not align with yours and your company’s values and the behviour will not be tollerated.  

‘Calling in’ and ‘calling out’ both contribute to pragmatic workplace cultures of inclusion, belonging and psychological safety.

The impact of microaggression and discrimination on employees

There is nothing more draining and damaging to the mental health of an employee than them feeling the need to edit themselves through fear of being isolated or excluded. As a leader, you have a responsibility to build a culture where everyone – no matter who they are – can bring their authentic self to work. 

In fact, it was hard to prove the full impact of toxic workplaces – where underrepresented groups felt the pressure to code-switch or assimilate – until the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the entire nation retreated to their homes.

Research carried out by Future Forum found that 97 per cent of Black workers would prefer to continue remote working or a hybrid model moving forwards. And, when asked if they wanted to return to the workplace full time, only 3 per cent of Black employees said ‘yes’, compared to 21 per cent of white workers who said they were eager to get back.

Know this: employees will boycot your organisation if they do not feel that, firstly, they can bring their true self to the workplace, and secondly, people are not held accountable for aggression, discrimination and prejudice.

How to teach employees to use their privilege as a force for good

The first step is for an individual to acknowledge how they show up and the impact they have on their colleagues. Everyone has built-in biases but working to understand them, noticing when these behaviours creep in, and taking positive action when they do, is essential. 

One of my favourite sayings is “nobody knows everything, but together we know a lot”. A collective awareness – one where everyone can check in with one another – is a powerful, preventative measure.

The challenges of teaching positive privilege 

People can find it difficult to acknowledge that they are in a position of privilege. Often it is those in the most powerful positions that become defensive about their privilege.

It is therefore important for people to know that there is no ‘blame’ for being a privileged person. But, to create change, it is essential that privilege is acknowledged and seen as a tool for good.

An effective way to open the dialogue around privilege in the company is to learn from someone with that lived experience. It is very important to have the right people in the room to talk on specific topics. Ensure that the wrong people do not take up space by speaking on a topic they do not understand. 

Leaders: use your privilege as a force for good across the business

A manager or leader who is privileged has the power to make and do better for other people. As well as challenging microaggressions amongst individual employees by “calling in” and “calling out”, there may be discriminatory processes that need addressing across the organisation.

For example, within your hiring process, do you only accept Russell Group, Oxbridge or Ivy League applicants? Or do you offer unpaid only internships that discriminate against so many people who do not have the means to do unpaid work? It is in the hands of the person who holds the position of privilege to be an active ally to those with less resources and access.

We all have a responsibility to use the privilege we have to create positive outcomes, whether that’s through advocating, championing or combatting wrongdoing.

Knowing how to use privilege positively will make a huge impact

The conversation around privilege and microaggressions goes far beyond work. Ultimately, the reason why they are so deeply embedded into the workplace is because of how widespread they are in British society. 

However, acknowledging privilege and committing to using this privilege as a force of good, will be hugely beneficial in our collective mission to create a more equal world.

Abi Adamson is founder and DEI director of The Diversity Partnership