How can employers help to stamp out microaggressions at work?

Nikunj Upadhyay offers advice on tackling discrimination in the workplace and building an inclusive environment

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Even in 2022, discrimination at work remains common. A recent survey commissioned by Wates Group found that four in 10 UK employees have experienced microaggressions at work related to their identity. 

This shockingly high number rises even higher for people from traditionally marginalised groups, reaching almost six in 10 among employees who are gay (58 per cent), lesbian (58 per cent) and bisexual (59 per cent), and 64 per cent among individuals with Black Caribbean backgrounds. 

A microaggression is a subtle verbal or non-verbal behaviour, committed consciously or not, that is directed at a marginalised group, and has a harmful, derogatory effect on the receiver. 

Despite its name, the impact of a microaggression is anything but small. Imagine if your colleagues continuously mispronounced your name because it is ‘too hard’ to say, or you were constantly interrupted when attempting to contribute to a meeting, or someone thought it was OK to let you know that you ‘don't even look gay’. Each of these seemingly small, insignificant, maybe thoughtlessly said remarks can be dehumanising. 

Microaggressions can hold people back from being themselves at work and encourage conformity to existing non-inclusive norms. They create invisible barriers that jeopardise inclusivity. They can also have a long-lasting impact on someone’s career because it takes people’s energy away from their jobs when they feel the need to change things about themselves. This is described by Kenji Yoshino as ‘covering’. Microaggressions can discourage people from applying for promotions or simply affect day-to-day work performance and job satisfaction.  

Tackling microaggressions 

Organisations have a responsibility to ensure an inclusive work environment where every employee feels they have a choice to be themselves. There are two key elements to achieving this. The first is leadership. Organisations can create institutional systems that address discrimination and systemise inclusion. They can stop tolerating bad behaviours. 

At Wates, we have had success in demonstrating this through our anti-bullying and harassment policy. This policy signposts escalation routes for colleagues who experience bullying or harassment, including an independent, confidential third-party reporting line. Crucially, the policy underscores our zero-tolerance approach to inappropriate behaviour, from the company’s leadership all the way through the company.

The second element is education. Organisations can nudge employees towards more inclusive behaviours by offering learning opportunities that help people recognise the microaggressions occurring around them and empowering them to stand up against them. Increasing our understanding of others’ lived experiences is the only way to create lasting change. With microaggressions, education is particularly important – without it, many people will not notice the ‘jokes’, slights or comments that have the potential to do great harm.

Our survey shed light on this, with people from minority communities more likely to report witnessing microaggressions and discrimination. Sixty-two per cent of people with a Black Caribbean background and 47 per cent of people with a Pakistani background said they had witnessed microaggressions or discrimination related to race or ethnicity, falling to 35 per cent overall. 

One initiative that has worked well for us is reverse mentoring. This programme has paired members of our leadership team with colleagues from underrepresented ethnicities to support a deeper understanding of how race shapes individuals’ lives and work. Through one-to-one interaction, mentees build an understanding of mentors’ lived experiences and of systemic inequities. This knowledge can help in creating more equitable environments that lead to better wellbeing, talent retention and career development and progression.

We can all do better

Education is an ongoing effort. To supplement our colleagues’ learning, we also run an annual Inclusion Month. This year for Inclusion Month our theme was ‘Allyship at Work’. We asked all employees to make one commitment to being a better ally, ensuring colleagues from underrepresented groups are supported, included and heard in the workplace. 

This year, more than 1,400 employees took part in webinars on ‘How to be an effective ally’ and more than 500 colleagues have made their own allyship commitments. I want to see the wider industry and business community do the same. 

Allyship means action. This includes listening to and supporting colleagues and taking deliberate steps towards improving the experience of minority groups. What is the one thing that you could change at your workplace that would make it more inclusive to others? 

Leaders might use this as a chance to set up a mentoring or training programme. But there are plenty of simple commitments that employees at all levels can make that will make a real difference to the lives of colleagues from underrepresented backgrounds. 

This starts with standing up to discrimination whenever we see it. Our research showed that while almost seven in 10 (67 per cent) consider themselves an ally to people with identities different to their own, only one third (36 per cent) have spoken out when they have seen discrimination or exclusion of a minority colleague at work. 

We all can, and must, do better. 

As one of the UK’s largest construction, residential development and property services businesses, Wates is a key player in one of the country’s least diverse industries. We have a long way to go but, if we are to create lasting change, we need to step up efforts to challenge social norms and create cultures that support everyone, inclusive of age, race, sexuality or background.

Nikunj Upadhyay is inclusion and diversity director at Wates Group