On today’s episode of the RecruitingDaily Podcast, William Tincup talks to Dr. Shirley Knowles from Progress about identifying microaggressions in a hybrid work environment and how to handle them.
Some Conversation Highlights:
Listening time: 26 minutes
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Shirley J. Knowles, EdD
In her role as Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, Dr. Shirley Knowles is dedicated to cultivating a culture of inclusion, diversity and belonging so Progress people are empowered to be their best. Shirley sees her work at Progress as equipping our people to achieve by tapping into the richness of diverse human experiences.Follow
This is RecruitingDaily’s Recruiting Live podcast where we look at the strategies behind the world’s best talent acquisition teams. We talk recruiting, sourcing, and talent acquisition. Each week, we take one overcomplicated topic and break it down so that your three-year-old can understand it. Make sense? Are you ready to take your game to the next level? You’re at the right spot. You’re now entering the mind of a hustler. Here’s your host, William Tincup.
William Tincup (00:34):
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s William Tincup and you are listening to RecruitingDaily Podcast. Today, we have Shirley on from Progress, and our topic today is microaggressions in a hybrid work environment and how to handle it. So we’re going to do a bunch of stuff during this call, so this is going to be a lot of fun and it’s going to be super fast. Shirley, would you do us a favor and introduce yourself and progress?
Dr. Shirley Knowles (00:58):
Sure. Hi, everyone. My name is Dr. Shirley Knowles. I am the Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Progress. We are based in Burlington, Massachusetts, although we have offices all over the globe. And I’ve actually been in this position just over a year and a half. There’s some days where it feels longer depending on the topic or some of the areas that I’m covering, but it is such a valuable role and it is a position that I’m grateful to have and I learn something new every day in my position leading this function.
William Tincup (01:40):
I got so many questions. Let’s start with microaggressions in general. What have you learned as you unpacked this because it’s like an onion, right? So the more you start to peel the onion, the more the onion presents itself with new things. When you first came into microaggressions on your journey, what have you learned about microaggressions?
Dr. Shirley Knowles (02:02):
I’m glad that you asked this question and we recently had a facilitated conversation around inclusive leadership. We had an external person come in and lead a discussion on what inclusive leadership means. And one of the focus areas was around microaggressions and what they mean. So our facilitators said that microaggressions are like little pinpricks that people feel over time based on comments or actions that are directed towards them. And these microaggressions can build up over time and it can really impact the way that a person experiences the world, views other people, views their colleagues. So one actually recent example of this, even within my own workplace, is I was in the office a couple of weeks ago and there was another woman in the office who also wears her hair in braids. And at the time, I had my hair in braids.
And within the span of an hour and 15 minutes, three people came up to this woman and introduced themselves and said, “How are you doing, Shirley?” And this woman’s not Shirley. So it was a conversation that we had and I said to her and her leader, “This is obviously a form of a microaggression where someone does not have evil intent, they’re introducing themselves.” But these same folks have been on calls with me, or have seen me on video, have seen articles that I’ve published, and I guess they just weren’t paying close enough attention to facial features. And it’s also something that I think folks from various communities experience as well where people just, “Oh, I couldn’t tell the difference between your face and the next person’s face, or your hair looks the same.” And again, it’s that pinprick that someone feels. And once it happens again and again over time, it can be very overwhelming to someone.
William Tincup (04:08):
That’s a wonderful example, and again, something that you’ve got to be intentional and purposeful. So I think some of this is we’re learning as a society and then, hopefully, as a globe, we’re learning of things that have probably been going on since time has started. But I think one of the things I like about Gen Z and millennials is they’re not willing to put up with things that maybe Gen X and boomers would have. So they’ll call people out. And I like that because how do you make progress without conflict, right?
Dr. Shirley Knowles (04:52):
William Tincup (04:53):
On some level, you have to have that conflict of saying, “Yes, you’ve confused me with so-and-so. Happens. No worries. We’re still friends. I love you. Let’s not do that again.” That awkwardness, I think it has to happen. But anyhow, go ahead.
Dr. Shirley Knowles (05:10):
Right. And I think one of the misconceptions around the term microaggressions, it’s that you are a bad person if you do something against someone else. And that’s not the case. I tell folks at Progress all the time, and also, I speak to others, that the world of inclusion, diversity, and belonging continues to expand. And we’re learning new things every day and understanding what is and is not acceptable and what are the things that we can speak up about. Let’s use ageism as an example. So ageism has been around, it’s not something that you should be doing as you’re considering candidates or as you’re considering folks to work on project, but ageism, unfortunately, happens. So maybe in the past, you’ll say, “Hey, you know what Shirley, you’re in your mid-50s,” I’m not, but let’s just say I am, “You’re in your mid-50s, I’m not sure you’re young enough to work on this project to really know some of the popular terms that are needed in order to work on this initiative or this project.”
If you’re told over and over again, “You’re too old, you’re too young,” that is, again, another form of a microaggression or, “You’re a working mother, you’re a working father, you probably don’t have this extra time to work on this project.” Again, these are examples that impact many people. And I always want folks to understand it’s not just tied to race, ethnicity, or gender, but there are other characteristics. You have a disability so, “I’m not sure if you want to go out with us because your wheelchair is probably going to be a problem getting into some of the doors,” or, “We don’t want to have to look for an elevator.” Those little pinpricks, again, they impact people in a negative way and impact the way that they interact with, as I said, your colleagues and the world.
William Tincup (07:14):
It’s funny because I think one of the things that people years ago would talk about is passive-aggressive behavior at work. And I never really understood passive-aggressive because that’s not my personality. My personality is extremely conflict oriented. So I just drop the passive part, aggressive. So I get that. But I wonder how much of this, especially with microaggressions, is tied to assumptions people have made. You just gave a great example of someone that’s in a wheelchair or, again, people are making assumptions rather than asking for consent. The difference between an assumption and consent is you ask. You don’t start with where you think the person wants, you just aren’t asked, “Hey, we’re going to go out, you want to go out? Cool, we’ll deal with whatever.” But there’s no assumptions led to that, it’s just consent, “We’re all going out. Would you like to go?”
Dr. Shirley Knowles (08:29):
Right. I think part of the challenge around just asking the question directly is the fear by some that you’re going to ask the question in the wrong way-
William Tincup (08:43):
Dr. Shirley Knowles (08:43):
You have to be politically correct, but what winds up happening is in your effort to frame something the right way or just say, “You know what? You wouldn’t like it because you are too old.” You wind up insulting the person instead of letting them have that first right of refusal because you could be an able-bodied person and still not want to go. Do you know what I mean?
William Tincup (09:06):
Dr. Shirley Knowles (09:07):
The wheelchair is not, or the crutches, that’s not the determining factor, necessarily, as to whether or not someone wants to go. Plenty of times in my career as an able-body person where folks are going out and I’m thinking, “You know what? I’m all set.” You know what I mean? It’s just, treat people as though you would want to be treated. You can ask the question, “Hey, do you want to work on this project?” Or giving people the chance to do something and then you let them prove you, quote, wrong. I do think that sometimes people’s internal thoughts of, “Oh, they’re not going to be able to handle this because it’s too many hours.” They project that onto someone-
William Tincup (09:50):
Dr. Shirley Knowles (09:52):
… and take the opportunity away from them instead of allowing them to say, “Yes, I do want to be a part of this,” or, “No, I don’t want to be a part of this.”
William Tincup (10:01):
So crush this for me, especially with the backdrop of diversity, inclusion, belonging, equity, and equality, and now, even in microaggressions. I think we’re at a place, a really interesting place actually, it’s going to be fun because it’s going to be chaos. But we’re at an interesting place where I think there’s certain people that are willing to try stuff and fail, whatever, programmatically, et cetera. They’re willing to try. And then you’ve got an entire cluster of people that are paralyzed, where they don’t want to try anything because they don’t want to fail. And it’s like we can’t move forward, especially like we’re talking about with microaggressions.
It’s okay to fail. You’re human, you’re going to make mistakes, whether or not it’s [inaudible 00:10:58] ways, whether or not it’s not including people on product. All the examples that you’ve given so far, it’s like you’re going to make mistakes. That’s actually good. If you’re making mistakes, you can learn from them and other people can learn from them as well. So how much of this for you in coaching other people, especially around microaggressions and probably even the broader context of D&I is it’s okay to fail?
Dr. Shirley Knowles (11:27):
It is okay to fail and here’s why, and I’m very vulnerable, and I tell folks this all the time, I may be the Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, I may have studied gender and cultural studies, I have my own lived experience around this, and there are things that I am learning every day. One great example, and I’ve had to train myself, over the years, I would say, “Man, this guy is crazy. This woman’s crazy.” I’d say it publicly in a meeting. Fast forward to now, that may not be the best thing to say, right? And it’s, again, something that I have had to work on-
William Tincup (12:07):
Oh, that’s interesting.
Dr. Shirley Knowles (12:08):
… getting better about. And that’s my own personal journey. Not to say that other people are going to stop saying that, but that’s just my own journey, right?
William Tincup (12:21):
It’s interesting because I think you can say, instead of she’s crazy or he’s crazy, more likely, instead of he’s crazy, that’s crazy to me.
Dr. Shirley Knowles (12:37):
William Tincup (12:38):
You know what I mean? The nuance of instead of it being on them, it’s now on me, it’s like, “Oh, that’s crazy to me.” Instead of putting it on them, which I think you’re right. I think we’ve done that with a lot of words where we’ve put it on the person sometimes accidentally, sometimes not accidentally.
Dr. Shirley Knowles (12:57):
Right, exactly. And I think at the end of the day, this fear that people have, at the end of the day, to help address that fear of failing, I would say to them, “Do you genuinely want to be better?” And I think if you make a mistake and people know that’s not how Shirley is, that’s not how Mary is, that can then help folks not have that negative reaction when you say something that is inappropriate. So this is why I tell folks at Progress, “One of the benefits,” and there are many benefits, “but one of the benefits of being a part of an employee resource group is the ability to learn from other cultures. We’re celebrating cultures, but you’re learning from other cultures and you begin to understand what is and is not appropriate,” right?
When you find yourself in a position where you want to comment on the way that someone looks, or you want to comment on their hair, or you want to comment on where they went to school you’re understanding, “Oh, in this culture, to talk about someone’s hair is a big thing.” And it doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about it, but there’s an understanding that you have to have. And the other piece around learning and not being afraid to fail, you have to ask yourself, “Why do I want to learn these things? Why is it important for me to have a better understanding about other people?” We talk about this a lot in the D&I space as I partner with some of my other colleagues that lead this function.
And I say to them all the time, “To me, the greatest determinant as to whether or not a company and its people will be successful with inclusion, equity, diversity, and belonging is whether or not they understand why they are doing the work.” If a company is looking to just check a box off to say, “Okay, we’ve hired inclusively. We said we wanted to get rid of microaggressions, so I think we’ve done that. Check that box and we’re all done,” they’re not understanding why they’re actually doing the work. So that when it’s time for you to actually step up for your employees, you should know why you’re stepping up. And a lot of times, I see that companies aren’t stepping up because they don’t understand why they need to step up.
And that is a really tricky piece when it comes to this work. And again, as you look at a hybrid workplace where people are both in the office or at home and someone says a comment and they don’t understand why someone else is offended, whatever, it just becomes more complicated when you’re not all together and understanding the mission of why this work is so valuable to the people.
William Tincup (15:54):
So where do you think, and where has sarcasm and humor gotten us sideways? And I’ll start with myself. I’m extremely sarcastic. So if there’s ever an opportunity or if I’ve ever come across where I’m trying to be sincere, it’s almost untrustworthy because people are just used to me being sarcastic. But I could see where people would misinterpret that. I can see where either humor or even sarcasm, specifically for me, would be misinterpreted. How do we teach around the nuances, the edges around microaggressions?
Dr. Shirley Knowles (16:41):
Well, again, you are doing some self-reflection and you know that you are a sarcastic person. So, there’s a little bit of maybe when you’re meeting someone for the first time, you reel in the sarcasm because they don’t know you so it’s like, “Is this guy’s serious, is he joking?” And I’ve worked with many people who default to sarcasm, and I ride the wave and I’m like, “Oh, this is just the way that Joe is,” right? But for other people, and again, depending on the culture that you’re working with, sarcasm doesn’t come across. So it’s like, “This guy’s not joking, he’s serious.” When in reality, you were serious. And this is why learning about people, cultures, beliefs, ways of communicating with one another, it is important.
It’s not just on the person that is the, quote, offender, but it’s on the folks that may be offended to say, “Oh, this is British humor,” right? Not to point that out as one way of communicating with someone else, but you just have to learn about people. That is as simple as I can really break it down. And then also, again, if you were the individual that seems to offend others, it’s slowing yourself down and saying, “Is this the appropriate thing to say in this group? How is this going to go over?” If someone comes to me and says, “Hey, Shirley, this hurt my feelings and here’s why,” my immediate reaction should not be, I’m immediately getting defensive, or, “It wasn’t that serious. You shouldn’t have taken it that way.”
William Tincup (18:30):
Yeah, tell me more about that.
Dr. Shirley Knowles (18:33):
“Tell me more about that. How can I be better? I genuinely do not want to have this happen again. I want to have a great working relationship with you.” So there’s a little give on both sides, but that’s fine.
William Tincup (18:48):
But there’s a responsibility. And what I love about it, it’s a two-way street for both folks. When a microaggression happens, especially in a hybrid work environment, the person that is offended, that’s real to them, whether or not it’s real to the person that did it or not, it doesn’t matter, it’s real to them. Their perception becomes reality. They have an obligation to teach, to then just say, “Hey, you probably didn’t mean it this way, or maybe you did. Here’s what happened and here’s how it made me feel.” Then the person that rendered that microaggression, they now get to learn, or they now know what they’re doing, both sides.
They know what they’re doing and either they keep doing it and they just don’t care, or there’s a real great learning opportunity, therefore. And then it takes both sides. And I love the way that you framed it up because when you’re talking to somebody, for me, in my example, the first time I meet somebody, I should probably almost tell them like, “Okay, here’s my style. Okay, I use inappropriate language. I’m sarcastic, really dark humor. So if any of that comes across the wrong way, just tell me.”
Dr. Shirley Knowles (20:17):
William Tincup (20:19):
Not give them permission, but tell them in advance and then just say, “No, it’s okay. If I cross any line, just tell me because my intent is not that.”
Dr. Shirley Knowles (20:32):
Or, “If something that I say does not sit well with you and you need follow-up, I’m more than happy to connect with you again in the future.” The example and the way that you just framed it, you were setting the tone, this is who you are. And the other person sitting across like, “Okay, this is who this guy is.” And then as they get to work with you, it’s like, “Oh, okay, here’s the sarcasm coming through.” But the tone has been set, right? I tell folks all the time, “My approach to inclusion and diversity is an educational one.” So I have a background in teaching. I have a background in education. I believe in not necessarily shaming people into I&D compliance. I believe in educating them and reminding them why this work is important, whether folks are in the office, whether they’re hybrid, or whether they are remote.
I like to remind them, “Hey, guess what? When we used to be in the office, you could see someone’s body language and say, ‘Ooh, they’re getting uncomfortable.’ You can’t do that at home. You just see someone from the shoulders and up. You don’t know what’s going on in their house. You don’t know any of the stressors that they may have going on in their life. All you see is what is on that screen.” So by using empathy, by having compassion, by actually asking them how are they doing, you’re now building this strong relationship with them so that, in the event they say something that is offensive or that doesn’t sit right with you, it’s easier to bring it up and say, “Hey, the other day when we were on the call, you made this joke about this group of people, and I know there’s no malice behind it, but I just want you to know that could be [inaudible 00:22:19].
William Tincup (22:19):
This is how I received it.
Dr. Shirley Knowles (22:22):
Exactly. So even in the way that I work at Progress, I’m constantly, and not going a sports reference, but not doing a full court press on, “Hey, this is diversity and inclusion,” every single day. But I try to bake it into real-world examples that someone can say, “Wow, that’s something that I do. I do discriminate against someone because I think that they’re too old.” And we’ve heard this example in the D&I space, but you look at a woman and you say, “Oh, she looks like she’s of childbearing age, or she just got married, she’s probably going to take maternity leave, so maybe we don’t hire her.” Right? Which is a very real thing. So baking it in where people are slowing down and maybe not announcing it publicly, but they’re saying to themselves, “I do that.” Or I go to one of my team that does that.
William Tincup (23:19):
That’s a great learn. That’s, first of all, just a great way to… How else do you learn these things if not by either personally making mistakes or seeing others make mistakes? How else do you learn this?
Dr. Shirley Knowles (23:32):
How else do you learn it? And you don’t need the direct experience in learning, but just, “Here are some examples,” or, “Here are some cases that I have seen within the organization. This is why it matters.” I actually had an employee that came up to me when I was in Boston a couple of weeks ago, and he said, “Shirley, there’s some anti-Semitic comments that have come out and I felt very uncomfortable.” And he went so far as to say when he attends events at his synagogue, he looks at the exits because he’s afraid that there’s going to be a shooter that comes in. So as I work on a communication to denounce anti-Semitic comments, you can throw all these stats in here, and here’s this news story of all of these events that happened, but also, let me tell you about a personal story, I’m not going to add the name in, but a personal story of one of your colleagues that many of you know and this is what he experiences when he goes to his synagogue.” And once you can, again-
William Tincup (24:40):
Now that’s real.
Dr. Shirley Knowles (24:41):
… get down to the real stories and say, “This is someone that you know. There is a woman that came back from parental leave and her managers did not invest in her, and she left the organization, or she transferred to a different team, or her performance has dropped.” Once you start to, again, express that, and my colleagues have shared some of these stories with me, my D&I colleagues at other companies, they share those stories with me, and then I just repurpose it and say, “Hey, this is something that’s happening at a company, and it could be happening here, and you could actually be the person doing it. So let’s grow. Learn from this. Check in on your hybrid folks. Check in on your remote folks as well as your resident folks or the people that are coming in four to five days a week and just treat people with empathy and as a whole human being. And realize that you’re going to make mistakes, that’s okay, apologize, learn from them, move forward.”
William Tincup (25:44):
Drops mic, walks off stage.
Dr. Shirley Knowles (25:46):
William Tincup (25:48):
Shirley, thank you so much for your time and wisdom today. This has been wonderful.
Dr. Shirley Knowles (25:52):
William Tincup (25:54):
And thanks for everyone listening to the RecruitingDaily podcast. Until next time.
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William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.