I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel, Maya Angelou.

Respect exists when employees perceive that they are valued by the organisation and colleagues and that they can bring their whole and authentic selves to work without risk of prejudice, discrimination or harassment. Only when employees feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work will the company benefit from their differences.

Respect is a basic human need, and its fulfillment enhances well-being. In motivational models, respect triggers approach behaviours and improves engagement and effort. The experience of disrespect, on the other hand, damages self-worth and triggers avoidance behaviours.

Risks to respect in diverse settings

Despite a universal need for respect and esteem, disrespect occurs with alarming frequency, particularly between members of different social and cultural groups.

The #MeToo movement has highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment at work globally. As another example, consider the high-profile case of the Asian-American doctor who was forcibly dragged, screaming and bleeding, from a United Airlines flight to make room for airline staff needing to travel home at the end of their shift. Consider also the arrest in April last year of two Black men after Starbuck employees called the police and complained the men were trespassing.

There are a few reasons why disrespect is more common across social and cultural groups than among members of the same group:

(i) Ingroup (affinity) bias

Studies show that, in general, people extend greater positive regard and liking towards ingroup members compared with outgroup members. This is called ingroup or affinity bias and is theorised to result from a universal motivation to maintain a high regard for the self. Group membership is an important source of one’s self-esteem; we can boost our self-esteem by associating with high-status groups, by distancing ourselves from low-status groups, and by boosting the relative status of our ingroup compared with outgroups.

(ii) Ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is a belief in the superiority of your own culture. It results from judging other cultures by your own cultural ideals. Ethnocentrism is often accompanied by negative feelings, such as fear, hatred, or disgust. In its extreme form, ethnocentrism can lead to terrorism, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.

(iii) Negative stereotypes

Stereotypes refer to beliefs that certain attributes, characteristics, and behaviours are typical of members of a particular group of people. We construct stereotypes from direct personal experience or, more commonly, from other people, or via the media. The media has a large influence on stereotype formation when we have limited opportunities for meaningful exchange with people from outside our own social group. Many of the stereotypes we hold are invalid and negative—particularly when they are based on race, religion, or gender. Negative stereotypes are linked to prejudice, discrimination, harassment and other forms of incivility.

(iv) Privilege

Privilege involves unearned benefits or advantages or conferred dominance that confer to some groups of people because of their membership of a group. The concept of privilege originally developed in relation to analyses of race and gender but has expanded to include social class, ability level, sexuality and other aspects of identity. Examples of privilege include:

Because privilege is largely invisible to those who have it, individuals are often blind to the disadvantages conferred on others. This makes it more likely that they will make insensitive statements or cause insult when interacting with those whose lived experiences are different from their own.

(v) Cultural context and social norms

A significant determinant of whether one will intervene when others are harmed or be a passive bystander is whether there is anything that suggests it might be costly to render assistance. This implies culture has a contextual influence on the incidence of harassment at work. As an example, in a misogynist or ‘macho’ cultural setting, there may be a personal and professional cost to men who call out sexual harassment that curbs their tendency to intervene. Research at Georgia State University confirms that when men were exposed to a misogynistic social norm, they are less likely to intervene when they witness sexual aggression.

(vi) Power

Bystander research also shows individuals are less likely to intervene when the perpetrator is in a position of power.

Power also contributes to the bystander effect by negatively affecting empathy. In a Northwestern University study, participants with a “high power” mindset were found to be less adept at reading people’s facial expressions, indicating an empathy deficit, and they were also less likely to take other people’s perspectives into account as they assessed a situation.

Forms of disrespect in diverse settings

(i) Harassment and bullying

Workplace bullying is verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by your employer (or manager), another person or group of people at work. Bullying behaviour includes victimising, humiliating, intimidating, or threatening. Some types of workplace bullying are criminal offences. Violence, assault, and stalking should be reported directly to the police. Examples of bullying include:

  •    Repeated hurtful remarks or attacks, or making fun of your work or you as a person (including your family, sex, sexuality, gender identity, race or culture, education or economic background)
  •    Sexual harassment (refer below)
  •    Excluding you or stopping you from working with people or taking part in activities that relate to your work
  •    Playing mind games, ganging up on you, or other types of psychological harassment
  •    Intimidation (making you feel less important and undervalued)
  •    Giving you pointless tasks that have nothing to do with your job
  •    Giving you impossible jobs that can’t be done in the given time or with the resources provided
  •    Deliberately changing your work hours or schedule to make it difficult for you
  •    Deliberately holding back information you need for getting your work done properly
  •    Pushing, shoving, tripping, grabbing you in the workplace
  •    Attacking or threatening with equipment, knives, guns, clubs or any other type of object that can be turned into a weapon
  •    Initiation or hazing – where you are made to do humiliating or inappropriate things in order to be accepted as part of the team.

Workplace bullying can affect people in a number of ways, resulting in:

  •    Distress, anxiety, panic attacks or sleep disturbance
  •    Physical illness, such as muscular tension, headaches, and digestive problems
  •    Reduced work performance
  •    Loss of self-esteem and feelings of isolation
  •    Deteriorating relationships with colleagues, family, and friends
  •    Depression
  •    Increased risk of suicide

A 2016 study found Australia had the sixth highest rate of workplace bullying when compared with 34 European countries. A 2018 study shows one in five workers has been bullied in the past 12 months. Respondents cited behaviour they’d experienced in the past six months, including “being sworn at or yelled at (37 percent of respondents); being humiliated in front of others (23 percent); and being physically assaulted or threatened by patients/clients (22 percent).”

Workplace bullying doesn’t just hurt those involved. The wider workplace also feels the effects through lost productivity, increased absenteeism, poor morale, and time spent documenting, pursuing or defending claims. It is estimated to cost Australian organisations between $6 billion and $36 billion a year.

(ii) More on sexual harassment

2018 marked a paradigm shift in our response to sexual harassment at work. #TimesUp and #MeToo galvanised targets of sexual harassment to speak out about their experiences and highlighted the shocking prevalence of workplace sexual harassment—crimes that had previously been cloaked in silence and shame, protecting and normalising the behaviour of serial perpetrators.

Sexual harassment at work is defined as ‘unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” Sexual harassment can take many different forms. It can be obvious or indirect, physical or verbal, repeated or one-off and perpetrated by males and females against people of the same or opposite sex. Examples include:

  •   Staring or leering
  •   Unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against you or unwelcome touching
  •   Suggestive comments or jokes
  •   Insults or taunts of a sexual nature
  •   Intrusive questions or statements about your private life
  •   Displaying posters, magazines or screen savers of a sexual nature
  •   Sending sexually explicit emails or text messages
  •   Inappropriate advances on social networking sites
  •   Accessing sexually explicit internet sites
  •   Requests for sex or repeated unwanted requests to go out on dates
  •   Behaviour that may also be considered to be an offence under criminal law, such as physical assault, indecent exposure, sexual assault, stalking or obscene communications.

Although much of the media attention has focused on the US entertainment industry, workplace sexual harassment remains widespread across industries globally, particularly in industries that are predominately male. The last sexual harassment prevalence survey run by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in 2012 ‘Working Without Fear’ found a quarter of women and one in six men aged 15 years and older reported having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years. Thirteen percent of Australians either witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace or were told of a specific incident. Men constituted almost 4 out of 5 of those who sexually harass. With the #MeToo movement launching workplace sexual harassment and bullying into the public spotlight, the Australian Human Rights Commission is currently conducting a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. The 12-month inquiry is accepting public submissions until 31 January 2019, to be followed by a public consultation process.

(iii) Micro-biases, including micro-inequities and microaggressions

While overt sexual and other harassment in the workplace remains a significant concern, we now know that the cause of workplace exclusion does not rest solely with blatantly prejudiced individuals but that even well-intentioned people can hold biases that influence their treatment of others in ways in harmful ways in which they are unaware and most likely would deny. The hidden biases of well-intentioned people play a major role in workplace hostility and exclusion. Fostering respectful and inclusive workplaces is not only about weeding out or ‘fixing’ the bad apples, but involves educating the wider workforce about how our subconscious might be contributing to disrespectful behaviour towards others even when our conscious intentions are to be fair and inclusive.

Modern theories of racism and sexism propose that we simultaneously hold unconscious prejudices and strong pro-equality ideals. Our unconscious bias develops mostly from biased media representations but also from our social experiences. As we are repeatedly exposed to stereotypical associations and prejudices from an early age, these become automated in our long-term memory. At the same time, the outward expression of internalised bias is curbed by strong social norms and legal restrictions against expressed prejudice and discrimination. The result is a subtle, hidden, and often unconscious negative bias towards particular social groups. Even individuals who truly believe they are non-prejudiced hold unconscious bias. Studies show racism and sexism manifest as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behaviour in individuals who expressly endorse egalitarian values, particularly when there is not enough time to engage controlled processing and regulate responses.

In social interactions, human beings process information via two routes. One route is automatic, largely driven by emotional factors, and activates well-established stereotypes. Our automatic social processing happens so quickly that it is below our level of consciousness, well below 100ms and as quickly as 30ms. Automatic social processing can influence our immediate judgments and behaviours without us even knowing it. In social settings, stereotypes and associated prejudices and discriminatory responses occur fast and outside of conscious awareness. However, the good news is that we can override our reflexive responses with controlled and deliberate thought or reflection. When we are motivated to be fair and unprejudiced because of either a strong internalised belief that it is morally correct to treat others fairly or because of strong social norms and legal restrictions against expressed prejudice and discrimination, we can engage controlled mental processes to override biased reflexive responses. Conscious attempts at suppressing bias are more effective at inhibiting some prejudiced and discriminatory responses but not others. Conscious intentions can help to overcome our verbal responses, but our non-verbal behaviour and judgments are much more difficult to control. Subtle discriminative responses—for example, feelings of discomfort, exclusion, and avoidance—may leak out during our exchanges with outgroup members.

When we interact with each other, we send unconscious messages that reflect how we feel and what we believe about each other. Those micro-biases are conveyed through facial expressions, gestures, vocal tone, choice of words, nuance and syntax and can be positive or negative. For example, we might smile warmly at people like ourselves but fail to make eye contact with people from a different racial background. Micro-biases come in two forms: (i) micro-inequities—unintentional slights that tend not to specifically reference legally protected group categories such as gender, race, disability, age but which demean or marginalise; and (ii) micro-aggressions—slights that reference group stereotypes and insult, diminish or belittle the individual.

Examples of micro-inequities include:

  •   Failing to look up from your smartphone when engaging in a conversation with someone
  •   Answering your phone when in conversation with someone
  •   Not turning around when someone comes up to your desk
  •   Interrupting someone or talking over them
  •   Ignoring a greeting by an employee/colleague
  •   Not acknowledging a person’s presence
  •   Ignoring contributions made by a team member during a meeting
  •   Directing your conversation more to one person or group of people in the room compared with the others
  •   Not including a colleague in an out-of-work social activity
  •   Not making eye-contact with some individuals but with others
  •   Actively soliciting and favouring the contributions of some team members over others
  •   Failing to acknowledge the achievements and efforts of all members of the team
  •   Raising your eyebrows, rolling your eyes, dismissive hand gestures or sighing loudly in response to someone’s idea or presence
  •   Ignoring emails from a person repeatedly
  •   Asking a person to repeat themselves constantly because you have not listened in the first instance
  •   Being repeatedly too busy to meet with an employee or colleagues

Examples of microaggressions include:

While seemingly harmless as an isolated incidence, overtime, micro-biases can devalue, discourage and impair workplace performance. Further, objections are often met with accusations of ‘overly sensitive’ or ‘too politically correct’. Those responses attack an individual’s self-concept and amplify the harm done by the micro-bias. Further, if they occur frequently enough, micro-inequities and aggressions could lead workers to file harassment lawsuits against their employers.

Fostering respect in diverse settings

Because the risk of disrespect is higher across different groups, organisations with diverse workforces must work harder to cultivate a culture of respect. Building workplaces where all employees feel respected requires attention to the following building blocks of respectful work settings:

(i) Civility

Civility is about treating others with courtesy, politeness, and concern. Civility is respecting the humanity of diverse others and showing positive regard for others as equals. Respect as civility involves a nonjudgmental acceptance of differences. It involves disagreeing without demonising and hearing diverse opinions without attacking. Cilivity is developed through formal training programs and becomes embedded in organisational cultures when leaders model, promote and reward the display of civility towards others, including colleagues, customers, and suppliers.

(ii) Pay equity

Pay equity extends beyond equal pay for like roles. Pay equity means that everyone, irrespective of background, has equal access to opportunities and financial compensation. As an example, pay equity is achieved across an organisation when women and ethnic and other minorities have an average compensation that equals the average compensation paid to heterosexual white men. This is often not the case. Typically, the average pay of traditionally non-dominant groups is less than the average salary of a heterosexual white male. Members of historically marginalised groups are often clustered in lower-paid, administrative or feminised-tasks (commonly lower-paid) whereas members of the traditionally dominant group in an organisation occupy the majority of higher-paid executive and specialist technical roles. Pay inequity implies disrespect because it suggests that some groups are valued less than others because of who they.

Achieving pay equity is more difficult than ensuring gender-equal pay for like roles. To close the pay equity gap, companies must actively track their diversity results across recruitment, selection, development, appraisal and promotion processes to identify risk areas and then implement short and long-term solutions that address those risks. Ultimately, employers must strive for diversity across all roles, teams, departments, and rank.

(iii) Well-defined code of conduct, a zero-tolerance policy, and effective grievance procedures

Clearly communicated codes of conduct supported by effective grievance procedures and a zero-tolerance policy for unacceptable behaviour send a strong message that every employee deserves to be treated according to, and will abide by the same standards. However, while most large organisations have an explicit code of conduct, there is evidence that grievance processes are not effective. According to an Australian Human Rights Commission survey of 10,000 Australians titled ‘Everyone’s Business: 2018 Sexual Harassment Survey’, while 33% of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years, only 17% made a formal complaint to their employer. Those statistics imply concerns exist regarding the effectiveness of grievance procedures with respect to disciplinary action, confidentiality, and backlash.

Best-practice grievance procedures should be:

  •    Fair—This means that both the person complaining (the complainant) and the person being complained about (the respondent) should have the opportunity to present their version of events, provide supporting information and respond to any potential negative decisions. In addition, the person investigating and/or making decisions about the complaint should be impartial; that is, he or she should not favour the complainant or the respondent or prejudge the complaint in any way.
  •    Confidential —This means that information about a complaint is only provided to those people who need to know about it, in order for the complaint to be actioned properly.
  •    Transparent—The complaint process and the possible outcomes of the complaint should be clearly explained and those involved should be kept informed of the progress of the complaint and the reasons for any decisions.
  •    Accessible—The complaint process should be easy to access and understand, and everyone should be able to participate equally. For example, an employee may require a language interpreter to understand and participate or a person with a disability may need information provided in a specific format.
  •    Efficient—The complaint process should be conducted without undue delay. As time passes, information relevant to the complaint may deteriorate or be lost, which will impact on the fairness of the process. In addition, unresolved complaints can have a negative and ongoing impact on the workplace.

An effective grievance process will also include provisions to:

  •    Protect employees from being victimised because they have made a complaint
  •    Protect employees from vexatious and malicious complaints
  •    Ensure appropriate confidential records are kept about complaints and that this information is stored and managed appropriately.

(iv) Best-practice anti-bullying and harassment training

The traditional approach to mitigating the risk of workplace bullying and harassment has been compliance-focused anti-harassment training, often facilitated by Human Resources or Legal. Research, however, raises questions about the efficacy of compliance-driven harassment training. While there is evidence that it is effective in transferring knowledge, sexual harassment training, for example, has been found to unsuccessful in changing attitudes. Even more problematic, traditional sexual harassment training can trigger negative emotional responses like denial, defensiveness, anger, and hostility, which can worsen attitudes towards groups that are more common targets of sexual harassment. A study published in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 2001, found that men who underwent 30 minutes of sexual harassment training were less likely than a control group to perceive or report sexual harassment, and more likely to blame the victim. While men who received sexual harassment training were less likely to engage in such behaviour, it was likely due to fear of being accused rather than any improvements in attitudes. The researchers suggested that the training might have made the men feel attacked—consciously or not—and that the backlash might have been an “effort at self-preservation.” The findings of this study align with research findings indicating that diversity training is threatening to white men.

Another study by Georgia University and Stanford researchers found that sexual harassment training can strengthen gender bias. “Participants in the policy condition displayed more entrenched male-advantaged gender beliefs compared to the baseline condition. We interpret this as evidence that sexual harassment policies may have the unintended effect of activating unequal gender beliefs, which run contrary to the policy’s equalising aims”.

Poor training can also leave individuals unclear and confused about what behaviours constitute sexual harassment and what don’t. This can lead to anxiety and a tendency to avoid contact with women or other vulnerable groups for fear of crossing the line. In an article in the New York Times, it was reported that men across a range industries such as finance, design, and technology are laying low, hunkering down and actively avoiding women for fear of misconstrued behaviour and retribution. Fear and suspicion, in a workplace setting, can only be detrimental to good, productive relationships. 

Drawing from research, there are some steps that organisations can take to improve the efficacy of anti-harassment programs:

  •    Pay attention to training program design and delivery: A meta-analysis of 65 studies on diversity and sexual harassment training, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior in 2013, suggests that it is possible to teach people how to identify sexual harassment—and to convey how company policies treat it—without inciting a backlash effect. Factors that determine a program’s effectiveness include: training that is in-person and for longer than four hours produce a bigger effect; short and virtual training has less of an impact; experiential training that requires participants to interact with each other is more effective than lecture-based training; participants learn more from supervisor or external expert-led training and less when the leader is a colleague without direct authority over their day-to-day work. Other research shows training is enhanced when people are asked to set personal goals for how they will change their workplaces for the better. However, even when training is designed to account for those findings, sexual harassment training is still unlikely to change attitudes. Individuals who enter sexual assault and harassment training with the most biased attitudes exit having learned the least.
  •    Use empathy focused interventions to change attitudes. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions. A commonly used technique for fostering empathy is perspective-taking; actively imagining the feelings and thoughts of others. Research shows that when men actively take the perspective of a victim of harassment, there’s a lower likelihood that they will sexually harass. This is why the stories of targets of sexual harassment are so powerful in fighting sexual harassment and changing attitudes.
  •    Invest in bystander training. Bystander training transfers tools that individuals can use to once motivated to intervene. Because personal and professional costs can accompany intervention, effective bystander training uses evidence-based intervention techniques that minimise backlash and tools for handling objections or negative responses. For example, if the harasser reacts angrily, we can learn to defuse the situation by separating the harasser’s action from his or her intention, which may not have been to hurt someone.
  •    Form ally networks: For example, networks of men who agree to support each other in calling out sexual harassment and protecting targets can be useful for countering anxiety about the personal and professional costs of intervening. The most effective ally networks have visible and committed senior leaders who set the tone for cultural change.
  •    Metrics and accountability including culture and harassment surveys: When respectful and inclusive behaviour is tracked, promoted, and rewarded and where behaviours that exclude, intimidate, threaten, or harm carry negative consequences, bystanders are more likely to intervene and are more likely to report incidences of sexual harassment. Also, would-be perpetrators are better able to understand the consequences of unacceptable behaviour and are less likely to abuse positions of power.

(v) Celebrating individual differences

When organisations formally acknowledge and celebrate aspects of an individual’s identity it sends a strong message to employees that their differences are valued and respected. Examples include acknowledging and celebrating days of religious significance, and participating in community-sponsored events such as Wear It Purple Day, in support of LGBTIQA+ awareness (especially for young people), or NAIDOC week, celebrating the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. (Click here to view UNSW’s diversity calendar, 2019.)

(vi) Acknowledging contributions

Everyone wants to feel that their contributions are valued. Affinity bias, however, may lead to greater recognition being granted to members of the majority group in an organisation compared with members from underrepresented groups. When an organisation or leader formally and deliberately recognises the achievements of members of underrepresented groups, it helps to negate unconscious preferences for in-group members. Employers in traditionally male-dominated industries, for example, can elevate the visibility of senior women in the organisation on its intranet site, through other communication channels, or by hanging photographs of senior women in shared public spaces such as a public lobby or a common hallway.

(vii) Respectful language and addressing

Our choice of language conveys a meaning other than the literal translation of the words used. Disrespect is expressed through crass language and demeaning terms.

Crass language is language that is rude or insensitive, unrefined, undignified, vulgar or crude. Jokes that reference bodily parts or functions are crass, as are swear words. Crass, vulgar and other offensive language could be grounds for dismissal under workplace laws although the fair work commission draws a distinction between swearing of itself (as an adjective or exclamation) and the deployment of expletives as part of abusive, or even more seriously, threatening behaviour.

Demeaning terms are terms that we use to address people that reference stereotypes and diminish or imply, whether intentionally or not, one’s worth or value. Consider, for example, the use of the terms ‘babe’, ‘missus’, ‘girls’, ‘love’, ‘honey’, ‘dear’. Also included under the banner of demeaning terms and phrases is ‘man-up’.

Respectful language and addressing also involves the use of inclusive pronouns. Gender pronouns are words that an individual would like others to use when talking to or about them. The most commonly used pronouns are “he, him, his” and “she, her, hers.” People who are transgender or gender nonconforming may choose to use pronouns that other binary male/female gender categorisations, such as “they, them, theirs” or other non-binary pronouns. Many of us experience the privilege of having a gender identity that is the same as the sex assigned to us at birth. Misgendering refers to the experience of being labeled by others as a gender other than one that a person identifies with. The experience of misgendering can result in an individual feeling disrespected, invalidated, and alienated.

Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for a person’s gender identity. Sharing one’s preferred gender pronouns in emails, introductions, nametags, and when meetings begin also creates a more inclusive place for transgender, gender nonconforming, and gender non-binary people. By asking about and sharing pronouns, we avoid the risk of assuming a person’s gender identity based on gender expression (clothing, hairstyle, mannerisms, etc.).

When sharing pronouns, some people may choose not to participate, for example, when they are questioning or transitioning their pronouns, when they don’t feel comfortable sharing them in that space, or if they fear bullying or harassment after sharing. When an individual does not share their pronouns its appropriate to refrain from using pronouns for that person and instead to refer to that individual person by their name. Never refer to a person as “it” or “he-she”. These are offensive slurs used against trans and gender non-conforming individuals. LGBTI+ inclusion training transfers knowledge regarding pronoun use and respectful language in the context of sexual and gender orientation diversity.

Respectful language and addressing of persons with a disability are also critical to fostering inclusive work settings. Guidelines from the Australian Network on Disability (AND) include:

  •    Put the person first, and the impairment second (when the impairment is relevant). Examples include: “person with a disability”, “people with disability”, “person who is deaf”, or “people who have low vision”. Other terms that are growing in popularity and acceptance are “person living with disability”, and “person with lived experience of disability”. These terms are inclusive of people who may have experienced disability in the past, but don’t any longer, and also people who are carers. AND also recommend the use of the term “person without disability” rather than “non-disabled” or “able-bodied”.
  •    As noted above with reference to microaggressions, don’t use language that implies a person with a disability is inspirational simply because they experience disability. Implying that a person with disability is courageous or special just for getting through the day is patronising and offensive.
  •    Conversely, don’t imply that people with disability are weak or victims or objects of pity. Avoid emotive terms like ‘suffering from…’, ‘struck down by…’, and ‘afflicted with…’ or ‘confined to a wheelchair’.
  •    Where possible, shift the focus of language from disability to accessibility. For example, describe car parks, lifts, and bathrooms as accessible, rather than disabled or handicapped.

Disability confidence training programs are helpful for employers seeking to raise awareness of inclusive language regarding persons with a disability.

(viii) Micro-affirmations

The impact of micro-biases is tempered by the active and intentional practice of micro-affirmations. Micro-affirmations are subtle, every-day acknowledgments of a person’s value and achievements. Examples include greeting colleagues, making introductions, listening attentively, personally acknowledging efforts and achievements, and responding to emotions with empathy. Micro-affirmations can also be expressed through positive body language such as smiling or making eye-contact. Because it is virtually impossible to convey a micro-bias and a micro-affirmation at the same time, intentionally practicing micro-affirmations is a useful strategy for managing unconscious biases. Organisations should develop micro-affirmations as part of unconscious bias or inclusive leadership training and promote and reward the use of micro-affirmations by holding leaders to account on desired behaviours.

(ix) Privilege and sensitivity training

Minimising microaggressions, which are often delivered unconsciously and without ill-intent, requires that individuals are made aware of their privilege and how their comments or behaviours might be harming others with backgrounds different to their own.

The Privilege Walk is an exercise that has been widely used to raise awareness of privilege, but concerns have been raised that this activity triggers backlash and worsens ‘us vs. them’ divisions. An alternative awareness-raising activity is Privilege for Sale. This activity creates a powerful learning opportunity by engaging participants emotionally with a concept that is often presented as academic or highly political but does not require personal disclosure and so avoids shaming or embarrassing participants. The activity must be supplemented with specialist training in sexual harassment and discrimination; cultural sensitivity; racial, religious and ethnic microaggressions; LGBTI inclusion; and disability confidence. The onus should not fall on minority members to call out or correct microaggressions.

(x) Upstanders

Every time that a disrespectful or demeaning comment goes unchecked, it not only erodes the self-worth and esteem of the target but failing to call out a harmful behaviour normalises it. Upstanders are individuals who speak out or act in support of others and in doing so, help to discourage repeats of the unwanted behaviour.

A disturbing feature of many of the high-profile claims of sexual harassment covered by the media is the failure of bystanders to intervene. Although numerous colleagues of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Burke corroborated targets’ allegations of sexual harassment, the actions of these men continued for years without interference or reporting to the authorities by those who knew of the activities.

Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley discovered that the bystander effect — the phenomenon whereby people are less likely to help others when there are other people around who can step in — is partly due to a diffusion of responsibility. Knowing that other people have witnessed a harmful event leads people to assume that others will step in to help the victim. The result is a disturbing lack of action. As noted above, culture and power also have a contextual influence on the bystander effect. Another contributing factor to the bystander effect is affinity bias. People are more likely to help similar others, which partly explains why targets are more commonly (but not always) from underrepresented groups in the workplace. Also, the degree of ambiguity of a situation influences whether or not people intervene to assist others. People are more likely to intervene when it is clear that someone is being harmed and that they should intervene. Confusion around what behaviours are unacceptable, as well as the normalisation of some forms of discrimination and harassment in the media and society, can contribute to confusion over whether or not the target is being harmed.

A powerful antidote to the bystander effect is observing a respected role model intervene. Leaders that act as upstanders are particularly helpful in driving a respectful work setting. Leaders often find it difficult, however, to call out bias and upstander skills should be included as part of diversity and inclusion training programs, for example, unconscious bias traininginclusive leadershipcultural awareness, anti-bullying and harassment, civility, disability confidence, LGBTI inclusion, and privilege and sensitivity training. Useful approaches for leaders include:

  •    Address the comment, not the person: “Nobody likes hearing that…” “That’s pretty offensive if you think about it…”
  •    Ask a question that makes them rethink their statement: “How do you think that makes them feel?” “I don’t get it – what does that mean…?”
  •    Use a “we statement” to gain support from people around you: “Yeah, I’m not sure we’d all agree with you there…” “Is it just me or does everyone here think that’s out of line?”
  •    Make a personal connection: “How do you reckon your girlfriend/sister/mother feels when people say stuff like that?”

(xi) Cultural competency

Cultural schemas are mental frameworks for interpreting the world that are shared by members of a cultural group. They act as social codes that guide individuals’ behaviour as they strive to fit in and succeed in a particular cultural context. There is great variation among the cultural schemas of different social groups, but when we do not appreciate the diversity of cultural schemas, we are limited to interpreting the world narrowly through our own cultural filter—our natural cultural code defines our reality and determines what is true and right for us. Any variations are deemed bizarre, wrong, or inferior.

Because our cultural frameworks are intimately tied to our self-concept, differences in values, beliefs, and behavioural norms can trigger emotional resistance or backlash. Cultural conflict is not inevitable, however: different cultural groups can and do coexist peacefully across the globe when there is an “appreciation of diversity, a recognition of the other side’s equality, and intercultural competence”. Developing intercultural competence helps individuals to come to accept the validity of different worldviews. Individuals with cultural awareness are less defensive and more accepting of novel ideas. They are open and receptive to new perspectives, ideas, and relationships.