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Embracing Diversity in the Workplace: Combating Microaggressions

The recent news of an activist facing relentless questioning about her origins sparked a significant debate in the UK. Unfortunately, instances like these, where someone is repeatedly asked, "Where are you really from?" are all too common, even within workplace settings.

Let's delve into the impact of such microaggressions and explore how fostering an inclusive environment can create a sense of belonging for all employees.

Finding Identity: The Weight of a Question

During a social event, I vividly recall introducing myself to new acquaintances. To my surprise, a woman persistently questioned my French heritage based on my non-French-sounding name. In that moment, I pondered whether to respond with sarcasm or my usual explanation: "I was born and raised in France by Moroccan parents." However, constantly having to address such inquiries left me with a lingering sense of unease. I questioned my own Frenchness—was I truly considered French? Why was my name seen as suspicious? Let me tell you that the media in France do everything in their power to make you doubt yourself and your born right to be French as a child of immigrants.

The Education System and its Bitter Contributions

Microaggressions may seem insignificant, like fleeting mosquito bites, but their consequences are both real and long-lasting. As a child of immigrants, I have often felt diminished by these encounters. Allow me to share some experiences from my school years:

  1. Cultural Humiliation: I remember my classmates ridiculing the henna on my hand during Eid celebrations and refusing to hold my hand. These acts left me feeling humiliated and excluded.

  2. Biased Judgment: A teacher once disparaged my ambitions, asserting that I should not marry at 18 and become a young mother. This teacher's prejudiced beliefs about "girls like me", fueled by stereotypes, were deeply hurtful and in contradiction with my parents education.

Workplace Microaggressions: Amplifying the Struggle

Now, let's explore how the workplace exacerbates this struggle by examining some pertinent examples:

  1. Religious Bias: My manager reprimanded me for eating during Ramadan, assuming I should be a devout Muslim. I had never asked or questioned her about her religious beliefs, so I couldn't comprehend why she felt compelled to pass judgment. I never opened that door. So, why did she feel compelled to make those comments?

  2. Implicit Prejudice: Colleagues openly discussed politics in the office, frequently criticizing immigrants, while assuring me that I was one of the "good ones." Though I am French, their implications and bias were crystal clear.

  3. Emotional Toll: A manager once asked an intern to calculate how much time the person in charge of cleaning was in the office (a black man). This emotional manipulation left the intern conflicted. Such racism in the office disproportionately affects minority individuals. As a vulnerable intern, she was subjected to a task that was not hers and fueled by the prejudice this man had against this man.

  4. Unfair Expectations: While being talked over, individuals would ask me to be more agreeable and less defensive, expecting immigrant-looking people to be grateful and silent, regardless of the mistreatment they endured.

  5. Hurtful Assumptions: Following a presentation, many colleagues commented on my exceptional French-speaking ability, as if it were surprising that I could fluently speak my mother tongue. Their surprise, though perhaps "unintentional", stung deeply.

Creating an Inclusive Work Environment: Actions That Matter

Taking proactive measures to ensure employees are heard and protected against microaggressions is crucial for fostering an inclusive and supportive work environment. Here are some actionable steps a company can take:

1. Establish a Clear Anti-Discrimination Policy: Develop and communicate a comprehensive policy that explicitly condemns all forms of discrimination, including microaggressions. This policy should be easily accessible to all employees. Examples should be included such as: "Do not touch a black person's hair."

2. Conduct Regular Diversity and Inclusion Training: Provide mandatory diversity and inclusion training sessions for all employees, including managers and leaders. These sessions should focus on raising awareness about microaggressions, promoting empathy, and cultivating cultural sensitivity.

3. Encourage Reporting and Establish Safe Channels: Create a reporting system where employees can safely report incidents of microaggressions, ensuring their confidentiality and protection against retaliation. Implement multiple channels such as anonymous reporting options, HR personnel, or designated diversity and inclusion representatives.

4. Implement Effective Investigation Procedures: Upon receiving reports, promptly investigate all incidents of microaggressions in a fair and impartial manner. Ensure that investigators are trained to handle such cases sensitively and maintain confidentiality.

5. Provide Support and Resources: Offer support mechanisms for employees who have experienced microaggressions, such as access to counseling services, employee assistance programs, or affinity groups where individuals can find solidarity and understanding.

6. Foster an Inclusive Culture: Actively promote an inclusive culture through leadership actions and company-wide initiatives. Encourage collaboration among diverse teams, celebrate cultural events, and showcase diverse role models. Emphasize the value and strength that diversity brings to the organization.

7. Address Unconscious Bias: Conduct unconscious bias training workshops to help employees recognize and challenge their own biases. Encourage self-reflection and the development of inclusive behaviors and language patterns.

8. Encourage Open Dialogue and Feedback: Create platforms for open dialogue, such as town hall meetings, employee surveys, or focus groups, where employees can express their concerns, share experiences, and provide feedback on the company's diversity and inclusion efforts.

9. Support Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): Establish ERGs that cater to various underrepresented groups within the organization. These groups can provide a sense of community, offer mentoring opportunities, and serve as advisory bodies to the company.

10. Regularly Review and Update Policies: Continuously assess and refine anti-discrimination policies and practices to ensure their effectiveness. Stay updated on best practices and legal requirements, adapting policies accordingly.

By implementing these actions, companies can demonstrate their commitment to addressing microaggressions, fostering a culture of respect, and creating an environment where all employees feel valued, heard, and protected.

Fatima Moudjaoui

You want to promote diversity and make your workplace more inclusive? I am available to discuss on how we can work together to make that possible.
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