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Culture Change


Chris Harrison

February 14, 2024

People in charge of the UK’s public sector budgets have recently been spending money to identify the impact of microaggression in the workplace and mitigate its impact. These days one might be tempted to question whether any UK civil service department represents a workplace in the literal meaning of the word. Since the pandemic, UK civil servants have been at the forefront of defining the new normal as staying at home and doing as little work as possible.

The expression microaggression also merits scrutiny, arriving as it does - largely unquestioned - in the tsunami of woke terminology that’s making it harder to get any work done anywhere. There is no rigid definition of microaggression, a term which emerged from the racial and social politics of the United States. But, rolling your eyes is apparently a microaggression. As is looking at your mobile phone during a conversation or meeting. Strangely, walking around with your phone on loudspeaker and sharing your conversation with everyone in the vicinity doesn’t feature.

Training consultants who are surfing this latest wave of management nonsense (KPMG’s consultancy arm among them) advise people to nod their heads frequently to promote transparency and inclusion. Public workers are also encouraged to spot a range of microaggressions, broadly defined as ‘innocently intended gestures or words interpreted as showing hostility to women or minorities’.

There are some rays of hope, however.  Departments that have invested public money in remedial programmes to counter this menace have met with an unexpected response from their staff: no tears of gratitude. Instead, participants politely said that the training did not meet their objectives and didn’t enhance their knowledge. Further, they felt they could not apply what they had learnt to their work and would not recommend such sessions to others. Nor was help coming from other hoped-for quarters. Musa al-Gharbi, a sociologist at Stony Brook University in New York and Research Fellow at the Transatlantic Heterodox Academy, said: “Making people more attentive to small faux pas and unintentional slights, and encouraging minority group members to interpret these as hostile acts indicative of deep-seated racism, sexism or xenophobia is likely to negatively impact the wellbeing of the very people it is supposed to help.”

Speaking theoretically, if microaggression did exist it could have an impact on employee productivity. It might lead to decreased job satisfaction, increased stress, and have a negative impact on mental well-being. Ultimately, undermining individual and team performance. But I don’t think this should distract us from the progress we are generally making in modernising the world of work.  However, if someone suggests otherwise, mind you don’t roll your eyes.