Belonging Breakdowns

Belonging Breakdowns

A Letter from Erin L. Thomas, Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging

The term microaggressions is vast and amorphous. I think it confuses the conversation we need to be having. So, here’s my attempt to unpack the essence of microaggressions so we can work collectively and individually to prevent them.

Belonging is a feeling—the extent to which employees can show up to work fully without having to sacrifice meaningful aspects of their identity. I think of microaggressions as the everyday moments that cause belonging breakdowns. I have mapped out the typical Belonging Breakdown Journey for anyone who’s relatively “different” in a company. Different means non-prototypical, or not the norm. I see seven stages in the journey, as depicted HERE:

1. Someone different joins the company

Their social identity (sexual orientation, race, age, gender identity, etc.) is one of many characteristics that can make them different. When someone fills a role that’s new to the company, has a pedigree that is atypical (educational background, industry experience, etc.), or has a work or communication style that isn’t the norm, they are different. Note: if someone’s social identity is new, they likely bring newness to some of these other factors. That’s the power of social diversity, which is what our Office of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging (DIBs) focuses on. That’s also a liability if we aren’t equipped to effectively maximize differences.

Also keep in mind that if someone is different, this is likely not the first time in their life that they’ve been or received signals that they’re different in a workplace—or even in society at large. They come in the door with an “external difference tax.”

2. Courtship

The company encourages the difference. The new hire feels welcome but possibly also uncertain, skeptical or untrusting because of that external difference tax. Courtship, which usually happens during the interviewing and onboarding process, is a formative employment stage. All new hires spend time in their early days trying to discern if they’ve made the right choice in joining our company. This is especially true for new hires who are different. Our required Q3 2020 hiring manager and interviewer training will help us strike the balance between being excited about diversity and tokenizing people who are different during the hiring process. This includes ensuring no one feels pressured to hire someone simply because they’re different.

3. Reality sets in

The different person is the only one like them in meetings and/or doesn’t see people like them in leadership. Their difference feels either under-optimized or exploited. They try to work within existing norms and structures by either mustering the courage and energy to point out issues and concerns and pushing for accountability

OR by withholding their input, putting their head down and assimilating. Both are costly. This is the “internal difference tax.” To help prevent, identify, and correct for this reality, see our tipsheet on How to Amplify Employee Voice.

4. Response

The company minimizes, ignores, denies, or refuses to see the issues or difference tax

OR the company expects the different person to explain their taxing reality, teach the company how to improve and/or fix the issues themself (on top of their day job).

5. Rejection

The company remains unaware of the existence or magnitude of issues or difference tax,

OR decides the issues are the person’s, not the org’s,

OR decides that they can’t afford the time and attention to fix anything. In turn, the different person is invalidated.

6. The different employee leaves the company

They leave voluntarily because the employment costs are far greater than the benefits

OR they leave involuntarily because the company decided they weren’t a “good fit” and/or their performance was subpar (likely impaired by the difference tax).

7. The end result

If the company fails to prevent or correct for these breakdowns, a person is harmed and the organization remains unchanged demographically, operationally, and culturally. The company hires a new "different" person and the cycle continues.

So what are microaggressions? All of this. Microaggressions are all of the actions and inactions that didn’t relieve the external difference tax and all of the workplace environments and experiences that contributed to the internal difference tax.

As you can see, microaggressions aren’t as small as their name implies. Words are hard. Sometimes, DIBs language matters a lot. In the case of microaggressions, I think the terminology is distracting. Instead, let’s focus on understanding the nuance of employee experiences so we can do the proactive work to design interactions that uncover all that our people bring to Upwork.

For each stage of the Belonging Breakdown Journey, keep this guiding question in mind:

As a manager, how do I change the reality?


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Author Spotlight

Belonging Breakdowns
Erin L. Thomas, PhD
VP, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging

Erin L. Thomas, PhD, is Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Upwork. She brings a distinctive mix of research and practitioner expertise to this role, which includes leading diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIBs) strategy, implementation, and coaching.

Belonging Breakdowns
VP, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging

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