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Death by a Thousand Cuts

Yesterday Sherry Lansing, Paramount's CEO and the most powerful woman in Hollywood, was honored at a breakfast hosted by the Hollywood Reporter and Lifetime Television at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Lansing, who plans soon to leave the movie business for a "third chapter" of her life in public service, recalled her climb up the ladder in an industry that had long been notorious for treating women like Barbie dolls. In the 1970s, when Lansing asked for a raise, an executive at MGM told her she was "making quite enough for a woman." Years later, when she was up for a promotion at Columbia Pictures, a board member scoffed at the idea that any self-respecting man would ever deign to report to a woman.

The list of slights Lansing had suffered during her long and illustrious career reminded me of a story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal about the new hot topic in the workplace — the identification of microinequities. These are the little slights, snubs, put-downs that all of us have suffered on the job that work to undermine our confidence and sense of self-worth.

For example, on the way into work today, a friend told me of being in line for a promotion, only to have a superior tell her that while she was spectacularly qualified for the job, the company was hoping for more of a "Wow" candidate. A rising star at another company here in NY, said a boss told her she was not allowed to speak at a meeting with outside vendors about a project she had handled because she was "junior staff."

While all these examples happen to be of women, this is not just a women's issue. Consultant Stephen Young, who runs a Montclair, New Jersey consulting firm called Insight Education Systems, told the Journal that he's had 34,000 employees from 62 businesses at his three-hour microinequities seminars since July 2003. Nearly half of 412 Merck employees who had participated said the experience had improved their business relationships.

With so many really big issues to worry about, why should businesses be concerned about these little slights? Mostly because smart companies know that one of their competitive advantages is the strength of their talent. "These cumulative little acts of exclusion can make an organization unsuccessful," says Brigid Moynahan, who runs a leadership consulting firm called Next Level. "People leave organizations because they dont feel valued there."

My question is: how do you deal with such snubs without making a federal case out of them — especially if they come from people higher up the organizational food chain? Is there a way to address the problem, short of walking out the door? Would love to hear suggestions.