Microaggressions are blocking your agency's diversity and inclusion efforts
A view from Ross Taylor

Microaggressions are blocking your agency's diversity and inclusion efforts

A positive approach to hiring will only get your organisation so far – to build an effectively diverse workplace, learn to understand the small, frequent behaviours that create a barrier to inclusion.

Many advertising agencies are not ready for black talent to thrive. Microaggressions are rife in the staid systems of middle-class, white privilege, invisible to those who have grown up in it.

But what are microaggressions? And why they are they standing as barriers to diversity and inclusion in your business?

Adland is taking action, finally. Earlier this summer more than 500 leaders signed the "Open letter to the advertising industry" committing to action, not words. We are seeing a rush of good intentions – quotas being put on hiring shortlists and accelerated exploration to diversify talent pools – but this is not enough. Your recruitment processes are just a small part of a required organisational redesign and a cultural reset.

The focus, often driven by panic, seems to be on immediate diversity initiatives, not considered and sustained inclusion projects.

Creating lasting change is not a quick fix. Everybody needs to be invested in the long term. Let’s not forget that as well as the huge morale issue here, diverse businesses perform 35% higher than industry averages (McKinsey) and inclusive teams make better business decisions 87% of the time (Forbes).

Organisations must understand that in order to achieve diversity, inclusiveness is a compulsory activating ingredient. Only will you gain the benefits of a diverse workforce when inclusive cultures also exist.

Diversity is about who you hire. Inclusion refers to the extent to which diverse employees are valued, respected, accepted and encouraged to fully participate. New research from MyKindaFuture shows that in the UK just 32% of UK office workers feel as though they completely belong within their company. Inclusiveness is a strategy for using each person’s unique and individual strengths to increase productivity, profit and performance.

We have spent time with our BAME community partners and black talent who are now safeguarding against the potential unintended consequences of the "diversity rush". Sure, you may want to hire more black talent, but it's just not that simple.

In adland, microaggressions exist daily in the hiring process and work environment. Unless they are at first acknowledged, then understood, and finally removed, agencies can try and hire all the diverse talent they want, but it will only exacerbate the already huge problem.

But what are microaggressions, and why are many people oblivious? Simply put, they're the kind of remarks, questions or actions that are painful, because they have to do with a person's membership in a group that's discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended, in everyday life.

Some examples of microaggressions we have discovered include: playing with a woman's braids, only talking to your black colleague about work, only giving a black creative certain "types" of brief, asking a black employee to be on the D&I committee, and always leaning on BAME employees to educate their white colleagues on multicultural topics. The list could go on.

More than expressions of conscious prejudice or intentional bigoted statements, you can think of microaggressions as implicit biases coming to life in everyday interactions.

As problematic as the microaggressions themselves are the attitudes in some camps that such an innocent and unknowing remark or action should not be seen as problematic. That the victims of these slights are actually oversensitive. Stark and worrying examples of the inherent bias in the culture of agencies built from decades of white privilege.

I ask you to stop and consider the compounded discomfort and exhaustion of daily reminders that you are different, that you don’t "fit in", and of having all those around you weighing in on your identity.

The reality is that the solution isn’t overly complex, but requires effort and a degree of discomfort. Take time to educate yourself and put some thought into the biases you might hold, become curious about the way your words and actions are perceived by and effecting others. Be kind and empathetic. Listen when people explain why certain remarks offend them, and make it a habit to stop and think before you speak.

If you don’t, all the good will, momentum and urgency for action we see from leaders and agency folk at the moment is going to only amplify the problems.

Ross Taylor is the founder of Hidden