The Great Resignation: Could microaggressions play a role at your company?

diverse group of people in an office

By Jason R. Lambert, PhD, and Dayo Akinlade, PhD

In recent news headlines, there have been many reports about the Great Resignation that has erupted this year. In June, approximately 10 million job openings were available making a new monthly record since the Great Resignation began. Moreover, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of employees who quit rose to 2.7%, compared to 1.9% from June 2020. Some experts and writers have suggested causes for this industry exodus, but what has not been highlighted enough are the causes rooted in social justice issues and perceived differential treatment at work.

According to Peter Lauria from the Korn Ferry Institute, a center that conducts research on drivers of human and organizational performance, Black talent has opted out of “corporate America” for some time now. More often than not, this is due to frustrations from not being able to penetrate the glass ceiling or just not being valued or heard when sharing ideas or contributions to the organization. Women have also steadily left the workplace. Though 80% of the workforce who left since the Covid-19 pandemic began were women, some experts suggest that other factors besides the pandemic, including a lack of mentorship and advancement opportunities, also played a huge role.

Experiencing microaggressions is also a primary reason why historically excluded employees leave the workforce. Microaggressions are subtle, less visible and sometimes unconscious acts of discrimination that individuals can exhibit towards others, usually based on someone’s historically marginalized identity group (i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, immigrant status). An example of a microaggression is when a female employee shares an idea in a meeting, but then a male colleague receives credit for it when he repeats it. Another example is when employees ask to touch a Black woman’s hair or ask an employee who uses a wheelchair about personal matters such as how they use the restroom. On the surface, these behaviors may seem like they just stem from curiosity, are unintentional, or simply rude, but they are actually subtle forms of discrimination that further marginalize underrepresented employees. Often, these incidents are not reported or addressed by managers because they are not sure how to address them. As a result, employees affected by this organizational culture of behavior leave the company. My colleague Dr. Dayo Akinlade and I have discussed this topic at conferences and university classrooms, and drawing from the literature on leadership, we developed the S.T.E.P. I.N. framework as a strategy for leaders to use while addressing microaggressions in the workplace.

Serious attention. First, as a leader you must recognize this as a serious incident to neither ignore nor underestimate. When you observe microaggressions, speak up! Address microaggressions directly by calling it out and using the incident as a teaching moment. Because many microaggressions are unintentional, educate the perpetrator and whoever else is there listening about the microaggression and its impact. Meet with the perpetrator immediately afterwards and express to that person the importance of apologizing before following up with the target to apologize yourself. Why should you apologize? Because you are the leader and thereby responsible for the work environment.  Keep in mind that many employees do not leave their job, they fire their boss. Be the boss that promotes the ethical thing to do.

Train. In addition to providing training on diversity, equity, and inclusion, offer granular level DEI training on topics such as microaggressions. You do not want your employees fearful that they might unknowingly exhibit microaggressions towards another employee, or feel powerless if they are the target. Your employees need detailed information and tangible take-ways to feel confident in their interactions with their co-workers, Encourage managers to be more attentive towards their employees. Simply walking around your company more often and getting to know colleagues has been shown to reduce microaggressions.

Engage. Whenever possible also use what Mary Frances-Winters calls micro-inclusions or micro-affirmations. For example, as a leader it is your job to make sure that men do not talk over women, or receive credit for their ideas. You may explicitly remind those in a meeting of the idea that Sharon posed even though Jim just repeated it. Be intentional about including everyone in the conversation to make sure that all voices are heard when a few may consciously or unconsciously dominate the conversation.

Promote valuing differences. Training should not be a one-time deal. Regularly celebrate the heritage and background of your employees. Allow flextime for employees to take leave for religious holidays so that all employees have the opportunity to practice their faith without feeling as if they are a burden on the company. Recognizing the diversity of faith also will make your employees feel valued because one holiday is not perceived to be emphasized more than another is. 

Inform. Provide access to literature on inclusion topics such as microaggressions using an electronic DEI resource directory. Publicize workshops on DEI widely throughout the organization. If you have affinity groups, promote their events and encourage employees to attend those events. When your employees learn more about identity groups other than their own, it may reduce the likelihood of microaggressions occurring. Increasing the exposure of your employees to experiences of other employees creates new shared experiences, opportunities for learning, and builds empathy. Employees who know each other well enough to understand each other’s intentions may be more likely to either express their discomfort with less anger if they are the target, or express an apology sincerely if they are the perpetrator.

Normalize. Leadership should create policies that create an environment that reduces the likelihood of microaggressions occurring. Create an anonymous medium for employees to report their experiences at work, whether it is a virtual platform, a phone hotline, or the old-school suggestion box. Consider including anonymous 360-degree feedback for evaluating your employees to inform you of how employees are being treated by their colleagues and supervisors. If you have the resources, consider employing a corporate ombudsperson, someone who is bounded by confidentiality who employees may report microaggression incidents to and track them to determine if there is a trend. Also, be proactive in creating a safe space for psychological security. Ways to do this may include making sure to call people by their names and not allow pet names at work. Usually these names are given to women and can feel demoralizing though they may not say anything. Confirm other people’s viewpoints and ensure equal contribution. Most importantly create and enforce a no touching policy. This may seem intuitive, but many women are objectified at work to the point that some men feel it is okay to peck them on the cheek, hug them or pat them on the shoulder upon greeting without invitations to do so. In addition, Black women regularly report having their hair touched by others or being asked if others could touch their hair. Creating tangible policies should reduce microaggressions because you remove the conditions that allow them to permeate throughout your organizational culture.

Jason R. Lambert, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Management in the College of Business at Texas Woman’s University where he also serves as the Chair of the Chancellor’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. He also is a Lead Consultant with Imagin Consulting, LLC and is a cofounder at Bizowna.com, a tech startup that matches underrepresented small business owners with business experts. Jason’s scholarship and teaching cover topics on organizational behavior and workplace diversity.

Dayo Akinlade, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and Lead Consultant at Imagin Consulting, LLC. Her teaching and research covers topics including diversity, human resource practices, leadership and creativity. Before joining academia, Dr. Akinlade worked for several years in various managerial roles, including as a management consultant with Accenture, in different countries such as Nigeria, Britain, Switzerland, and the United States.

Page last updated 8:49 AM, September 10, 2021