Tuning in to Microaggressions


5 min read
19 Jun

Rosie Turner is the co-founder and co-chief executive of InChorus. Her career began in corporate innovation, sourcing new technologies for large companies. This became a particular interest in technology that could improve workplace cultures. This interest evolved to focus on problems in the workplace that people were struggling to raise officially, but were talking about around coffee machines. An example of this is the #MeToo topic although this came slightly later. These experiences formed the early idea for InChorus.

Rosie says of that time, ‘I was looking at everything around employee engagement tech stack essentially. I spent a lot of personal energy. It always starts as a side hustle, doesn't it?

I was lucky enough to meet Raj, my co-founder, working at Friendly Fires, a tech for good innovation consultancy. We were applying that corporate innovation tool kit, but looking at technologies and innovations that were potentially addressing any parts of that diversity and inclusion agenda - everything from mentoring to flexible working. We found there was a huge focus on tools that supported diversity, but very little that was helping companies grow inclusive cultures.’

The purpose of InChorus is to help businesses to address microaggressions, so I asked Rosie to explain what a microaggression is. She thinks it's a term that ‘splits the crowd’ saying, ‘People are either very familiar with it or they aren’t. Micro-incivilities is another term that is sometimes used. Microaggressions are everyday comments or actions that consciously or subconsciously reveal prejudice towards a marginalised group, often those with protected characteristics. Microaggressions are those subtler snubs or slights that make people feel uncomfortable. Common examples are everyday sexism or everyday racism hashtags on social media.'

We moved on to discuss the types of microaggressions that are most frequently seen in the workplace.

‘Think about a spectrum. At one end, you have the most severe incidents, like sexual assault. At the other end, a microaggression might be that someone always asks the only woman in the room to go and make the coffee. It might be sexist banter or slightly racist jokes that are not at all funny. Or intrusive questions into someone's sexuality or disability. These behaviours and actions may not have the intention to hurt behind them. There can be that intention, but there often isn't.

These seemingly little things make a big impact on an individual. They also, ultimately, create an organisational culture. It's that which makes individuals feel included and valued or makes them feel unappreciated and excluded.’

Rosie gave another example of how the physical environment can convey microaggressions. Limited accessibility which forces someone to go all the way around the back of the building. 'That conveys a message that somebody hasn't thought about this or they have and it's not that important.'

I shared some of my experiences of microaggressions as a wheelchair user. I've worked in offices where people have made comments about how fast my wheelchair goes, or that I shouldn't run over their feet. I even had one person pat me on the head.

I asked Rosie how she sees microaggressions or microincivilities impacting individuals and the workplace. ‘There's often the assumption that a microaggression is not a big deal, but drill into the research to see the real impact. There’s a brilliant book called Microaggressions In Everyday Life by Derald Wing Sue. I’d strongly recommend reading to learn more about microaggressions. Dr Sue highlights three stages of impact: physical, emotional and cognitive, along with the effort that goes into dealing with these incidents.

Initially, there’s a physical and emotional response: feeling angry or upset, your heart rate goes up, you feel hot. Next, there’s the decision of challenging it. Will you have to face some confrontation if you do? If you accept it there might be guilt or complicity that arises. Finally, over time those impacts combine to take a huge toll on the individual.’

Microaggressions can lead to anxiety, depression and burnout which has huge implications for the individual and workplace. Their impact can be greater than overt racism.

Rosie explains, ‘That’s because of attributional ambiguity of the victim thinking, "Well, was that me? Was that you? Why do I feel this way? Should I feel this way?" Processing that makes it much harder to deal with for an individual, as opposed to an incident where you can just say, "Well, that was racist. That was bad. You shouldn't have done that." With microaggressions, the victim questions themselves. They wonder if they are the problem. That kind of cumulative effect is wearing. I once heard it described as death by a 1000 paper cuts.’

Rosie founded InChorus with Raj because she felt it was important that an individual can come forward easily to share if they've experienced some form of bias or harassment. Her motivation was witnessing the pain and the hurt amongst her network when people felt that silence was the only option.

‘It felt important to give people a voice across the whole spectrum of harassment, from overt incidents across to microaggressions. Whilst companies often have processes to deal with the more extreme incidents, the raft of microaggressions or everyday behaviours often falls through the cracks, along with all the individual impacts mentioned.

Raj was instrumental in finding the business pain point. Microaggressions mean problems around productivity. They scale up to issues around retention which affects diversity and how resilient and innovative the organisation is. Therefore the business case for helping companies address these behaviours is strong. Microaggressions hurt employees regularly. InChorus develops cultures that steer away from these incidents and the impact.'

I asked what InChorus does when users log on to the app, what they see and how to use it. Rosie describes it as a web app, where an employee can anonymously log everyday instances of bias or microaggressions. She said it’s deliberately designed to be very quick and easy. It’s a simple button pressing process that removes some of the barriers for the individual wanting to flag a behaviour. It’s anonymous on both sides. The software builds a picture made of trends or patterns of behaviours in a workplace.

‘The company gets aggregated data providing insights where problems are emerging. So women aged 26 to 35 in the sales team might report higher incidents of sexist banter that they're finding un-funny. InChorus provides this rich chain of data. The company can see it's having a negative impact and can explore that more. The idea is to identify issues earlier. Companies can then be more proactive rather than reacting to something more serious at a later stage.’

I said to Rosie that when I talk to companies about scaling up diversity and inclusion, InChorus is a technological solution that they get excited about. It’s because the data provided identifies where targeted action needs to happen. In the long run that saves them a lot of time and money.

Rosie agreed that although companies had a good sense of their diversity data when it comes to inclusion there tends to be a gap in understanding and ways to measure it. It’s this culture and inclusion agenda that is at the core of InChorus.

‘So rather than being nebulous, we can look at the data and say, "Okay, this is the problem that your organisation seems to be experiencing. How can we trial a targeted intervention and then measure and track to see whether that improves anything, and go around that loop again?"

By enabling organisations to think about a culture of inclusion, it's exciting. Suddenly they see how by presenting data it becomes a very interesting conversation with senior leadership from that D&I perspective.’

We also talked about how the app can be customised. For example, employees can be signposted to additional resources, whether that's the employee assistance programme or a whistle-blowing hotline. Rosie said InChorus deliberately incorporates resources to add value for the employee using the tool. ‘We really thought about the process for the individual and how to make a two-minute interaction valuable.’

In terms of results, InChorus have worked with progressive companies with positive cultures. These organisations are aware that they are about to grow exponentially. They want tools that enable them to manage inclusive growth.

‘InChorus is useful in enabling that because it's simple and grows with you. It offers comfort and reassurance by having a finger on the pulse of any emerging issues during rapid growth. We’re also working with the FinTech industry, partnering with Innovate Finance, Revolut and Level39, to open up an app version to any employee working across FinTech. The idea is to get data at the industry level and look at how we can help the wider sector.'

I asked Rosie what inclusive growth means for InChorus and its clients. Specifically, how technology can help accelerate that inclusive growth we’d talked about.

‘It’s about embedding diversity and inclusion at the earliest possible stage. Companies might think once we get a certain point, say in 2 years or after the next 50 people we’ll think about that. I don't think that's the way to do it. I think we should look for proportionate interventions and ways of thinking about things earlier.

Even for smaller start-ups with 7-10 people, look at inclusive hiring practices. Do you have mechanisms in place at 20-30 people, where someone can flag a problem? Developing best practice early is so important. In the FinTech For All campaign, we're looking at how we can help the whole sector think about those challenges today, no matter what size they are.

The specific link to inclusive growth lies in developing the resilience of organisations who look after and retain their employees. In COVID-19 times, I think that's never been more important. As companies go through the next difficult step of how to get back on track as an economy and start to scale and grow and move forwards, I think, embedding that inclusion and enabling inclusive growth is key’.

The initial findings from the InChorus FinTech industry research will come out soon. To get access to the insights visit fintech.inchorus.org and sign up. To learn more about how InChorus can help an organisation with its inclusive growth visit inchorus.org or follow them on Twitter at @InChorusGroup where lots of information on this theme is shared.