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Micro-Incivilities in the workplace and what you can do about it

We’re delighted to have Binna Kindola as our guest author this month for The Inclusion. Binna is one of the most established, respected and recognised voices in the D&I community. His current book ‘Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference’ investigates how office racism has transmuted into more insidious, but less obvious forms, including what he terms as micro-incivilities.

The “minor” things

I was with a client recently discussing incidents of harassment that had occurred in the organisation. I made two observations of our conversation: first we had focused exclusively on gender and second, the examples were all quite crude and blatant. When I gave examples of the more subtle behaviours that minorities experience, the response was “we need to tackle the big stuff first, before we move onto the more minor things.”

Colour-blind diversity policies

This response is sadly is typical of many organisations’ approaches to diversity and inclusion. Gender dominates, with only the occasional nod to other issues.

In fact, the focus is narrower even than gender — it’s not just women but white women. When you look at the initiatives undertaken (such as women’s leadership development programmes or a mentoring scheme for women) you typically find few, if any, women of colour.

Gender policies, supposedly designed to advance diversity in organisations, in most instances, ignore race, and consequently racism, completely. The adoption of a ‘colour-blind’ approach in the name of diversity is nonsensical, hypocritical and exposes the biases of the people who are designing the strategies.

Micro-incivilities & their impact

The senior leader in the example did not only prioritise gender over race but also made a distinction between ‘minor’ and ‘major’ actions. When it comes to racism, the common view is that it consists of crude, objectionable, offensive actions — the sort of things no reasonable person would ever do. It is the kind of things that the media love to cover and when we learn about them we feel outraged. At another level though, many people in the majority will also feel comforted: “Racists behave in these ways. I would never do this. Therefore I am not a racist.”

However, like a virus racism has mutated. The obviously offensive actions have been termed by psychologists as old-fashioned racism. Modern racism, on the other hand, is subtle, indirect and ambiguous. Many people refer to these behaviours as micro-aggressions. I prefer the term micro-incivilities because this connects them to something called Organisational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB).

And crucially OCB has been shown to be related to effective performance of teams. Micro-incivilities are daily, commonplace behaviours or aspects of the working environment which signal to out-groups that they do not belong. Sometimes referred to as everyday racism, they include:

– Constantly interrupting minority members
– Criticising minorities’ performance and yet never offering any praise
– Never looking at someone in meetings
– Constantly getting the minority team member’s name wrong or calling them by the name of the other minority in the team

These actions all say “You’re not welcome or valued here”.

Their power comes from those in the majority believing that they are trivial or insignificant. In fact, micro-incivilities cause more distress because it is difficult to know how to interpret them and to respond to them.

To make matters worse

To complain about these ‘minor’ actions only makes things worse. In a survey Pearn Kandola carried out in 2018, 60% of black people and 42% of Asian people said they had experienced racism at work (of those, 20% had been subject to verbal and psychical abuse — old fashioned racism is definitely alive and kicking).

Racism at Work Survey Results Publish date March 2018

The least effective action to resolve these issues was to report it to HR. Fewer than a quarter (22%) of those who reported the incidents to HR felt it had been dealt with effectively. In dismissing the grievance the complainant can find themselves described as ‘playing the race card’. Not only is the complaint dismissed, but, with a nasty and clever inversion, the victim becomes the perpetrator and perpetrator the victim. Thus heaping humiliation on top of the distress.

What can we do?

We can make the situation better, however. First, we need leaders and key people like those in HR to recognise that racism hasn’t gone away, but it is different than it was.

One striking result from our 2018 survey was that the most effective action to tackle racism was to deal with an incident immediately. Furthermore, the people most likely to take action where white people. The one drawback was that those in the majority were far less likely to identify the subtle behaviours as racism. So education is important so we can all recognise racial micro-incivilities when they occur.

In addition, though we need to listen and to empathise with the experiences of our minority team members.

About the author

Professor Binna Kandola is Senior Partner at Pearn Kandola. He is acknowledged as an expert in the topic of unconscious bias having been researching and writing about the topic for nearly 15 years. He has written extensively about bias and most recently published Racism at Work: The Danger of Indifference.

His work challenges orthodox thinking in the field of diversity and inclusion. He is invited to speak at conferences regularly most recently to speak at the Biased Science event at the Royal Institution.

He has worked with senior leadership teams in many organisations including Citigroup, AXA, Rio Tinto, UBS, Cabinet Office, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The Inclusion Blog

The Inclusion is our monthly newsletter for HR Directors and CEO’s. We bring you the latest insights on Diversity and Inclusion from our experience, D&I Leaders and unique perspectives from the diverse talent we work with.



An award-winning organisation, Arrival Education has more than 13 years of experience helping leading businesses become more diverse and inclusive. We help businesses recruit, retain and develop socially and ethnically diverse young talent and help the talent achieve success.

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