Unconscious Bias and Microaggressions at Work

Editors Note: While the SAFE Institute has historically focused on sexual harassment, we recognize that many forms of harassment can occur in the work place, including harassment based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, and other identities. Our team has spent the past year developing and testing new training on unconscious bias and microaggressions in the workplace in order to truly meet our mission of Building a Safe Environment for EVERYONE. Contact us at safeinstitute@safeaustin.org to bring the full training to your team.

How Can We Build a SAFE Environment for Everyone?

At a fund-raising event, one of your employees tells you that a disgruntled donor has asked to speak to the person in charge. You walk up to introduce yourself and ask how you can help. The donor says, “No, I said I wanted to talk to the MAIN person in charge.” You take a deep breath. “I’m the CEO. What can I do for you?”

Maybe this has happened to you, or you’ve witnessed a similar interaction where someone made incorrect assumptions about an individual’s identity because of the way they look, act, or speak.

If we are serious about fostering workplace cultures of inclusion, it’s essential that we acknowledge the role unconscious bias plays in our everyday team communications, decision-making, promotion and hiring practices.

We ALL have biases; it’s just a fact of being human.

Bias is prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. 

Sometimes we’re well aware of our bias. Personally, I am biased towards the French national soccer team over the US one, because I grew up watching soccer in France. No judgment, please! 

Unconscious bias, on the other hand, happens outside our conscious awareness and is usually based on past experiences and/or stereotypes. It affects our decisions and how we see the world around us, and often results in negative consequences. For instance, a hiring manager may not be aware they have a bias towards people who grew up in the South as they did, but this may affect their hiring decisions nonetheless. When they unintentionally overlook a more qualified applicant over one from Tennessee , that can negatively impact the company (losing out on a better candidate), and of course, the job seeker in question.

That’s affinity bias - being drawn to people who are similar to us in appearance, beliefs, and/or background.  

The forms of unconscious bias that commonly affect workplace dynamics include:  

  •  Affinity Bias - This most often comes up when companies hire for ‘culture fit’, the question being, whose culture? Instead of excluding people who don’t fit the dominant culture in your workplace, we can seek to hire for ‘culture add’ and seek to build more inclusive, diverse teams.
  • Attribution Bias - For instance, making unfair assumptions about a candidate who is late to the interview or says something that makes you jump to conclusions about their life or professional experience. Are you missing a part of the story? Could there be extenuating circumstances?
  •  Name Bias – This is one of the most pervasive forms of unconscious bias in the hiring process. Studies find that white sounding names on resumes receive significantly more callbacks for interviews than African American-sounding names or Asian names.

Our biases can turn into discriminating or harassing behaviors, including microaggressions.

And in 2021, employees and job seekers are less likely to put up with workplaces where they don’t feel valued and respected for who they are and what they bring to the table.

Choice is the key power component when it comes to the employment marketplace. As unemployment goes down, and there are more and more opportunities out there, employees can choose… and they do. They choose to go to places where they feel like the opportunities are going to be greater, where management treats employees with respect, are helpful to them, and supportive of them.” -Danny Nelms, President of Work Institute

Microaggressions stem from our biases and send messages that perpetuate stereotypes. They can be defined as:

… brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.  (Derald Wing Sue)

The not-so-subtle message behind the donor’s comment in the initial scenario is that a person who looks this way couldn’t possibly be a CEO: they don’t fit the ‘type’. What IS a CEO supposed to look, dress or act like? Who decides that?

Other common examples of microaggressions in the workplace include:

  • Insisting to know where someone “is really from” after they reply “Illinois” (sending the message that a person of color, with an accent, or who has a name that’s ethnic-sounding, isn’t really or fully  American)
  • Telling a Black person they’re “so well spoken” (as if the expectation were that Black people cannot speak “proper English”)
  • Suggesting that you might not give a new technology project to an older co-worker (assuming that because of their age they might not be willing or able to learn a new skill)

Even if individual microaggressions are brushed off by the person experiencing them as merely annoying, their cumulative effects over time can be large, especially for people who sit at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities – say, a gay person of color, a Black person with a disability, an immigrant woman.

Being on the receiving end of microaggressions has been compared to getting bitten by mosquitos: an occasional bite is annoying, but being attacked by a swarm (the cumulative effect of microaggressions) can lead to mental and physical illness, lower self-esteem, lead to depression, and/or anxiety.  What ensues is lower performance at work and employees feeling undervalued. Employees who experience microaggressions may not even apply for promotions.

Accepting that we all have biases doesn’t absolve us from taking responsibility for mitigating their potentially harmful impacts on our colleagues and our workplace culture. With awareness, we can make conscious decisions about how we interact with others. For instance, when we realize we’ve said something cringe-worthy, it’s important to acknowledge that and apologize. “Yikes, that didn’t come out right. I’m sorry.” Humor can also be a great tool in correcting your own or others’ microaggressions, if that’s more your style. We offered our recommendations for employees to engage in modeling respectful interactions in our blog on Moving from Bystander to Upstander here.

As we move towards creating inclusive workplace cultures where everyone feels valued and encouraged to bring their authentic, whole selves to work each day, let’s give ourselves permission to not be perfect. This is a process. It’s hard. It’s long-term. And we can embrace the discomfort and challenge for the greater good.

Sandra Molinari

Sandra Molinari

As our lead BASE Training Expert and Director of Community Education, promoting healthy relationships has been a major focus of Sandra's work at SAFE. She is responsible for planning and managing a team of trainers that promote an understanding of abuse and violence in our community. In her 17 years of experience in training and program management, Sandra has designed and led hundreds of empowerment workshops, as well as culturally-responsive trainings for professionals in the United States and Latin America.