- Microinequities aren’t microaggressions
- Impact of microinequities
- Examples and fixes
- Starts with management
“Microinequities” is a broad spectrum of workplace behaviors that have the potential to devalue employees, hurt morale and destroy culture.
It’s important that HR address the issue.
After decades of employee listening tools collecting data from workers around the world, most of the findings on what drives employee engagement points toward something our parents or caregivers taught us early on – we want to be valued.
But it’s not that simple.
We want to spend the majority of our waking hours around co-workers and managers who show us how we are valued. The other side of that coin is avoiding personal interactions that make people feel devalued.
Microinequities aren’t microaggressions
We shouldn’t confuse this with the more popular term “microaggressions,” which usually refers to common verbal or behavioral slights that communicate negative attitudes towards groups that could cause someone to feel demeaned because of their race, gender or identity.
Microinequities might include some microaggressions, but I think of it as any action that makes someone else feel lesser – and it’s usually done without malicious intent. That means that managers and co-workers might be letting microinequities become pervasive in the workplace just out of sheer ignorance of how to identify them.
So how do you find out whether this is happening in your workplace? If communication or meeting behavior is creating a psychologically unsafe environment – meaning that people do not feel secure enough about their position to speak up – then that’s a culture that desperately needs an action plan to correct it.
Impact of microinequities
The impacts of fostering a culture where microinequities are common can be devastating to every part of the company. When employees feel their opinion isn’t as important as others, they will also feel that their contributions have less value.
Our research shows that experiencing regular microinequities can lower self-esteem and affect work performance – employees with low self-esteem are much more likely to leave. In particular, microinequity behavior toward women – like assigning them note-taking tasks when it’s not in their role, interrupting them in the middle of meetings or giving them pet names – are top predictors of who will stay and who will leave.
The cost to the enterprise of high turnover rates are well documented. So alerting managers to the microinequities problem – and getting them to take action against the behaviors – isn’t just good management practice, it’s key to supporting the company’s long-term financial health.
There’s a second impact of microinequities that might be even worse than low self-esteem: Lack of access to opportunity.
If a manager constantly undermines and undervalues an employee in the presence of other employees, other employees might also begin to devalue that employee. Reputational damage can happen at an unconscious level, without someone being aware that another person’s value is slowly ticking down in their estimation. Devaluing behavior leads to actual loss of opportunity because that employee may not be taken seriously when they contribute ideas, be picked for the next big project, or trusted with career-promoting initiatives.
Examples and fixes
Sometimes the abstraction of describing this with a big word obscures the everyday nature of the behaviors, so here are some common examples of microinequities you might find very familiar. I’ve paired them with some “antidotes” to the behavior.
Starts with management
These are only a few of the small things managers can do to fight microinequities. Individually they may not seem like much, but taken together and practiced regularly, they are powerful tools to change culture.
It all starts with managers. They should be asking some pointed questions about each of their reports, questions like:
- What am I personally doing to set this person up to succeed?
- What might be happening to this person on a daily basis that could make them feel undervalued?
- Am I practicing purposeful listening when my employees talk, or just thinking what I should say in response before they are finished?
I have 500 reports… are you really asking me to do this? It’s a common refrain at senior levels of the world’s largest companies. There’s no doubt that trying to keep track of every individual’s well-being and psychological safety is impossible for anyone with a team of more than 20-25 people.
But the first step is defining microinequities so an entire organization’s managers know what they are and know what to do about them when they’re observed. The next step is to use new listening technologies to scale up your program to eradicate microinequities. We no longer need to rely only on anecdotal or manager-centered reports. AI-powered technologies that give managers and employees feedback in real time, rather than waiting every year for an annual census survey, are changing the employee listening landscape.