You’re walking down the hall at work and pass the boss who makes a crack about your gender, race, religion or heritage. You cringe because you don’t want to make a scene, yet once again you’ve been made to feel like you don’t belong.

You have just experienced a microaggression and you question whether you handled it properly. After all, was your boss trying to make an innocent joke and out of ignorance used hurtful words and expressions, or was it intentional? Should you have confronted your boss or just let it lie?

Everyone has experienced this type of microaggression at one time or another. Some minorities, especially, have experience it quite frequently. And almost everyone is guilty of expressing this behavior at one time or another—whether intentional or not.   

That is why the insurance industry has launched “Dive In, The Festival for Diversity & Inclusion in Insurance,” in an effort to improve diversity in the workplace. The insurance industry is notorious for its lack of diversity, and executives want to change and create a better working environment for everyone. They also fear business will suffer if they do nothing, and if they do diversify, it will open new business opportunities all across the industry.

The Council sponsored a meeting in its Washington, D.C., headquarters on Sept. 25 for industry professionals. Speaking at The Council’s event were Jeffrey Smith, of Jennifer Brown Consulting, and Jacquline Morales, of Legal & General America. The Council event was one of more than 50 events in 27 countries. The first event was held in 2015 in London and the sessions since then appear to be having an effect. This year a survey of insurance professionals in London found 52% responded favorably to the diversity and inclusion culture. That was up from 21% just last year.
 
Explaining how microaggressions should be handled. Smith and Morales admitted how difficult the issue is to deal with and how uncomfortable it makes employees. Yet not dealing with it, they agreed, was not the answer.

Microaggressions, they explained, may be small in nature but have a big impact on work, mood and even an employee’s health, especially if they have been bombarded by a lot of microaggressions in the office during their careers.

“Your identity is being attacked,” Smith said.

Dealing with microaggressions from other employees can lead to “covering,” where employees actually change their behavior to deal with the onslaught. This can result in minorities barely acknowledging each other in large office gatherings that include many of their white male colleagues. Shockingly, 53% of employees said their bosses expected them to do this. As a result, employers struggled to get 50% of their workforce to be committed to their organization.

To deal with this, Smith suggested employees learn inclusion behaviors to make others in the office feel welcomed, valued, respected and heard. When another employee makes them feel uncomfortable because of their aggressive behavior, the worker should confront the aggressor without blaming them. Instead, Smith said, they should explain how their hurtful language made them feel.

Morales said employees should not let themselves become victims of microassaults, where an employee says something inappropriate and then says they were just kidding. The insults are either based on ignorance and innocence, or deep-seated prejudices, she said. Either way, you need to address it.

She suggested the employee ask their colleague to repeat the hurtful words they just said. That puts them on the spot and may force them to become more aware.

She said if you are a perpetrator of microaggression, own up to it immediately and apologize so you can move on. If you are a bystander and witness it, speak up. “Silence,” she explained, “is an endorsement.” 

They also touched on restrictive company cultures and hiring. Hiring someone who “fits the culture,” Smith said, “is a cop out.” He explained it’s a lazy boss’s way of not having to deal with diversity and inclusion. Many bosses, he said, tend to hire someone just like themselves, and consciously or unconsciously limits diversity in their office. Numerous studies, he said, have shown the more diversity and inclusion there is in an organization, the better it does.