It’s more clear than ever that putting diversity and inclusion at the heart of an organization strengthens it at every level. Diversity has been conclusively shown to promote innovation, drive higher revenue, and improve employee engagement as companies strive to hire, include, and give equal value to employees from all backgrounds and circumstances.
Inclusion within a business means involving and empowering everyone and recognizing their inherent worth and dignity. An inclusive company also promotes and sustains a sense of belonging through its values and practices, respecting the talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and identities of its employees.
Startups, in particular, have an opportunity to build diversity and inclusion from the ground up—a chance that only comes once. Taking steps as early as possible to address culture poisoners such as microaggressions and unconscious bias will help create inclusion for all employees, contractors, and partners, and position the organization for a healthy culture and long-term growth.
Understanding the harm of microaggressions
Microaggressions are quick and frequent slights that communicate hostility or demean others through words, actions, or environmental indignities. They are also among the most insidious and harmful behaviors in the modern workplace.
Microaggressions can make others feel excluded because of their age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. They can be intentional or unintentional. The impact of microaggressions is not a symptom of people being overly sensitive. Everyone can overlook a clumsy joke or outdated assumption once in a while. But when small indignities continue to pile up, it becomes dehumanizing, frustrating, and harmful.
Microaggressions can take many forms. A prior employer once asked me to make sure my team was present for picture day because we were the most diverse. People of color are often featured on the company website for the sake of appearances but are not otherwise included.
Other common microaggressions include discussing business matters in any area that is not open to all, for instance a men’s bathroom, or joking with and teasing others based on socioeconomic differences, like “trailer park” jokes. Interrupting and talking over others or making comments such as: “I think what she was trying to say is . . .” is another microaggression, and so is assuming anyone from an underrepresented group should be involved with diversity, equity, and inclusion work.
It can be easy for organizations to overlook the impact of microaggressions because they are not loud, overt expressions of bias. Often, company leaders and others who are not the subject of microaggressions are unaware how ubiquitous they are, and the negative impact they have on the confidence, self-esteem, and sense of belonging of team members they want to feel included. The microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations that people face on a daily basis often are quietly tolerated and rarely reported.
Don’t let microaggressions poison a company culture
People often feel that tackling microaggressions is not worth the effort, particularly when overt prejudice is still a problem. Simply opening our eyes to the reality of microaggressions in the workplace is a crucial first step toward creating more inclusive workplaces. Discrimination of any kind negatively impacts company culture and harms the mental and physical well-being of a company’s employees.
Startups have an advantage in this process because leaders can build the company on solid footings of diversity, equity, and inclusion from the very beginning. Establishing standards of behavior for all employees helps startups set the tone from their first days that discrimination in any form is not tolerated.
Leadership in a company is responsible for calling it out and making it clear that those behaviors are not welcome, which can be done through training at all levels of an organization. When a company empowers a greater diversity of viewpoints across an organization, microaggressions diminish. So, adding diversity, in and of itself, helps diminish the likelihood of microaggressions as a form of unconscious bias, and encourages appreciation of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Opening lines of communication can help so those who do witness microaggressions can escalate the issue. Creating a simple and secure process for amplification can also surface persistent microaggressions.
Organizational leaders should provide education about recognizing and preventing microaggressions as well as safe reporting options for employees. Training and materials on when and how to respond to microaggressions can also help empower people and let them determine how it will impact their lives.
Mandating attendance at these regular education and training sessions is a firm stance in favor of inclusion. Intermittent training for specific audiences such as leadership or to target particular issues as they arise will bolster these efforts.
Legacy companies may not have established fair and equitable policies from day one, but they can and should enshrine diversity and inclusion as organizational values. This could be a long road for many. However, even aside from the legal responsibilities, striving to eliminate microaggressions and unconscious bias is a benefit for all employees and for the welfare of the business.
Although focusing on diversity and inclusion drives greater success across the board, organizations need to remain vigilant because it can be easy for company cultures to slide into toxic and unwelcoming bad habits.
By embracing the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, startups and legacy companies alike can have a positive impact on society as a whole. Along with sharing their public support for efforts related to combating bias—as my company recently did when taking the Crypto for Black Lives pledge—they will be empowering employees with the tools to diminish all forms of discrimination in their everyday lives.
Katherine Johnson, general counsel and VP of compliance and people ops at Storj Labs.