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The legal, morale dangers of bias, microaggressions in the workplace

When a respected North Bay executive resigned last month, alleging racial bias and microaggressions directed toward her, it was a public declaration of a chronic issue for the business community.

Sheba Person-Whitley (NBBJ, 2020)
Sheba Person-Whitley (NBBJ, 2020)

Sheba Person-Whitley is a Black woman who for the past 2½ years has served as executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. Her last day will be Dec. 27. She has accepted a job with the U.S. Department of Commerce, The Press Democrat first reported on Oct. 28.

“My time here has been fraught with me doing my very best to perform my duties as executive director while managing the stresses and harm caused as a result of racial bias and microaggression,” Person-Whitley wrote in her email resignation, which the outlet stated was leaked.

Racial biases can show up in many ways, including in the form of microaggressions, defined as everyday comments or actions that are subtle but express some sort of unconscious bias toward a historically marginalized group. They can be intentional or unintentional.

For example, a microaggression can be botching the pronunciation of someone’s name rather than asking, telling a transgender person they don’t look “trans,” or a man directing a woman to take notes in a meeting otherwise filled with men. Microaggressions can threaten the safety of a work environment and, left unchecked, the fallout can be severe both for the employee and employer.

Employers seek training

“I think people are becoming more aware of microaggressions and willing to talk about them more,” said Arlene Smith, director of training and development at Santa Rosa-based The Personnel Perspective, an executive search and human resources consulting firm serving the North Bay area. “But it is uncomfortable for a lot of people.”

Smith recalled a recent conversation with someone who told her they don’t see people’s color.

“The intention was trying to say something complimentary, very positive,” Smith said. “What they didn’t realize is that the impact is minimizing. You're invalidating that person.”

The Personnel Perspective’s management and leadership trainings include diversity and inclusion programs, the latter of which Smith said weren’t often sought out before May 25, 2020.

“I think the trigger for many companies was the George Floyd murder,” Smith said. “That’s when we were really getting a lot of our clients and other businesses coming to us and saying, ‘We want to be part of the conversation, and we don't know how to have that kind of conversation.’”

The Personnel Perspective’s diversity and inclusion training programs are customized by how deep a company wants to dive into that conversation, Smith said. Pricing is determined by several factors, such as the number of trainings, complexity of the topic and the instructor, which could be a trained coach or an attorney. The approximate cost for one 90-minute training session can range between $2,250 and $2,850, she said.

The types of industries seeking D&I training are varied, Smith said, naming construction, wine, manufacturing and nonprofits, among others.

“One of the things we always make sure people understand is that training is a way to establish some language and definitions that you can all understand,” Smith said. “The cultural change is bigger than training.”

Stepping up

Person-Whitley had reported her experiences of microaggressions to the county’s Board of Supervisors about a month before she resigned, according to The Press Democrat, which in a Nov. 6 article stated she had addressed her concerns with them in several closed-session meetings.

“I felt that that was courageous,” Supervisor James Gore told the outlet, adding a facilitator was brought in to conduct trainings about microaggressions. “It’s not like (Person-Whitley) dropped a bomb and left. She opened a door.”

What isn’t publicly known is whether or not Person-Whitley also reported the incidents to the county’s human resources department — or even needed to. An inquiry to the county’s spokesperson went unanswered.

“I don't know what happened with that employer, but the normal course is we always want to encourage employers to take complaints seriously and look into the concerns of the employee and try to resolve it,” said Brenda Gilchrist, co-founder and partner at The HR Matrix, a Santa Rosa-based human resources consulting firm.

Gilchrist said that in addition to conducting harassment trainings, organizations are responsible for investigating any types of complaints an employee may bring forward.

Sometimes when an allegation is investigated, it turns out to be a misunderstanding, she said, recalling the situation of a woman who alleged her supervisor didn’t say hello each morning because she’s Hispanic.

“So we investigated, and we found that he didn't say hello to anybody in the morning” and just made a beeline for his office, Gilchrist said, adding the supervisor felt “horrible.”

Gilchrist said it’s important employees try to speak directly with the person they believe is offending them, and give the employer the opportunity to correct the problem, rather than quit.

“If employers don’t investigate and try to get to the bottom of a complaint and stop it, that's going to be on them,” she said. “And it will probably end up in a lawsuit.”

Legally speaking

There is no law that prevents an employee from bypassing company policies and filing a lawsuit, said Sejal Thakkar, a San Francisco-based attorney and business consultant. Thakkar has her own firm, TrainXtra, and also has been retained by The Personnel Perspective.

“When you have these unconscious biases, you engage in these behaviors toward somebody, and that’s the problem,” she said. “As an attorney, what I saw was a lot of these cases that looked like intentional discrimination were really because these microaggressions were happening and they hadn't been properly addressed by the organization.”

Thakkar also cautions against getting caught up in the word “micro.”

Microaggressions, Thakkar said, are just as harmful as macroaggressions, which are overt behaviors.

“A lot of us in the diversity and inclusion field are starting to use a different term instead of microaggressions,” she said. “We're calling it ‘subtle acts of exclusion’ because a lot of times people hear ‘microaggressions,’ and they’ll say it’s no big deal. Yes, it is just as harmful as any other kind of racist act, whether it's conscious or not.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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