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Alliance for Diversity and Inclusion

A multi-unit committee supporting Cornell University's institutional diversity planning initiative.

Diversity training tackles unconscious bias and micro-inequities

Sometimes we are not conscious of how our words or behaviors affect others, and we can miss subtle cues that tell us what we are saying is offensive to someone else. We can also hold assumptions or beliefs about others or about situations that affect our verbal and nonverbal communication, and sometimes that communication unintentionally impacts others in a negative way. Communication of this type is called unconscious bias. When unconsciously offensive verbal or nonverbal communication becomes repeated and results in singling out, ignoring, or offending individuals, it’s called a micro-inequity.

The Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble in February and March presented to 490 staff members from DFA, CIT, Budget, Investments, and Audit scenarios that demonstrated these types of communications. After each performance, attendees were asked such questions as, What assumptions are underlying each situation? What is the potential impact on the recipient of the communication? What’s the potential impact on the workplace? All of these questions and the resulting discussions about the answers helped staff members learn how our assumptions affect our interactions, and how our behaviors affect those around us.

Attendees were asked to gather in teams to analyze one of four micro-inequity case studies. These discussions helped attendees further comprehend what constitutes a micro-inequity, how it impacts the recipient and the workplace, and how to potentially address the behavior.

The audience discussed how we sometimes fail to address micro-inequities out of fear or lack of understanding, and how this lack of discussion can result in resentment, detachment, poor team dynamics, and sometimes, high turnover.

As a counter-measure to these unintentional behaviors, attendees were asked to consider using micro-affirmations. Micro-affirmations, which encourage compassion and fairness, can reinforce and reward positive behavior, and help people in the workplace feel valued and accepted. Examples of micro-affirmations might include:

  • Small acts of kindness
  • Tangible and intangible rewards
  • Recognition
  • Compliments
  • Simply listening

More information about micro-affirmations is available on our Training Information page.

Post-training feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with 94% of respondents agreeing that the experience was positive. More than 80% said that the training raised their awareness of unconscious bias and micro-inequities, and 83% said they understand better why such awareness matters in their jobs. More than 80% of attendees responded to the feedback survey.

This training was a continuation of the FY14 training, which focused on a broader scope of diversity and how it impacts the workplace. The number of training sessions for this year was expanded to 12 (from six sessions last year) to respond to the feedback for smaller sessions, and to accommodate additional staff members from Budget, Investments, and Audit, who recently joined the finance division. Two of those sessions were held specifically for supervisors, and two other sessions were held online via WebEx to accommodate remote workers.

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If you have feedback or questions about this initiative, email us at adi@cornell.edu.
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