How Entrepreneurs Can Spot Subtle Bias

Training of leaders can include awareness of micro aggressions, inequities or indignities.

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By Jonathan Segal

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I would like to say that sexual and other forms of unlawful harassment are a remnant of the past. Sadly, they are not.

In its 2012 Strategic Enforcement Plan for 2013-2016, the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission listed among its six priorities "Preventing Harassment Through Systemic Enforcement and Targeted Outreach."

The good news is that many responsible entrepreneurs provide antiharassment training at a minimum to all supervisors and sometimes all employees. This training can go a long way toward eliminating objectionable behaviors in the workplace.

But that does not mean the conscious animus or unconscious bias that animates harassment goes away. It sometimes surfaces in different forms.

In some workplaces, less overt but potentially bigger obstacles to equality emerge. Sometimes they are called micro inequities or micro aggressions.

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There are a lot of different and sometimes complex definitions for these terms. But their essence can be simplified as follows:

A micro inequity is a slight that demeans or marginalizes the recipient. It can result from an omission such as when a leader says hello to all the men but not the one woman in the elevator.

A micro aggression is an act that stereotypes or denigrates the recipient. Usually it involves more active behavior like telling an Asian-American employee, with surprise, that he has no accent.

In both cases, the key term is "micro." What's occurring is relatively small.

Someone might say, "Don't sweat the small stuff." But little things can mean a lot. When there are many micros inequities and aggressions, the cumulative result can be the feeling, if not the reality, of bias.

Indeed Psychology Today has a blog that tracks micro equities and micro aggressions with regard to gender, race and sexual orientation.

Some may assume that only lower-level employees are subject to these "micro indignities." That's not the case.

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Recently I read in The New York Times about a woman who was the only female professional in a group for some period of time and she felt that her that her voice was not heard until a man then echoed the same. That woman was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a 2009 interview in USA Today, she said the other justices on the team, who were then all men, sometimes ignored the arguments she made at their private conferences. "I will say something -- and I don't think I'm a confused speaker -- and it isn't until somebody else says it that everyone will focus on the point."

From 2006 to 2009, after the resignation of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and before the appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Ginsburg was the lone woman on the court, a situation she found isolating and disturbing, as she told The New York Times.

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Employers need to expand the training of leaders to include awareness of micro aggressions and inequities, which could be referred to collectively as micro indignities. The training should cover not only which overt and covert comments and behaviors to avoid. It should address how to respond if a leader hears or witnesses a micro indignity.

A leader should make it clear that he or she has zero tolerance for the behavior, passive or active. At the same time, the leader needs to be careful to not to send a message of paternalistic rescuing.

Assume a manager says to a group of women going out to lunch, "Have fun shopping," a statement that could be regarded as a micro aggression. How should a leader who overhears this respond?

Saying that the remark stereotyped the women makes the female employees the focus. That's not good.

Telling the women he means nothing by it is worse. He said it. He probably meant it.

Ignoring it does not work. That may be seen as tacit agreement.

Asking a woman if she is offended fails. The question might be as offensive as the comment.

Consider saying the following instead: "That's offensive to me. I would like to talk with you alone." Notice the focus is on the leader not the women stereotyped.

Let's take Justice Ginsburg's example: Her voice is not heard until echoed by a man. How do you address this situation so as to empower the person as opposed to rescuing the individual?

Saying, "Ruth, didn't you say the same thing?" could make Ruth appear petty.

Offering, "I could have sworn I heard that before" puts the burden on Ruth to speak up but again.

What about waiting to see if Ruth respond? But what if she doesn't? Again, silence may be seen as tacit support.

Try this: "I appreciate Ruth's raising the idea and your supporting it."

Micro inequities and aggressions happen quickly. Business leaders need to be prepared to respond fast and thoughtfully.

So when someone tells me, "Someone does not sound black," I respond, "Help me understand with what you think black people sound like." And then I pray that I don't hear what I fear I may.

This article is not legal advice and should not be construed as applying to specific factual situations.

Related: Do Startup Cultures Have to Be Profane?

Jonathan Segal

Partner in Employment Practice Group of Duane Morris

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner in the employment practice group of Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia and principal at the Duane Morris Institute, an educational organization.

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