How to Combat Marginalizing Behaviors in the Workplace

To drive workplace inclusion, executives must recognize marginalizing behaviors and address them to support employees.

From taking credit for someone’s idea to pet names, marginalization can take many forms in the workplace. A set of small actions that individually are annoying, but not egregious, can create a “death by 1,000 cuts” phenomenon — they collectively add up to an environment that does not feel inclusive to some members.

Kasey Panetta, Gartner Senior Content Marketing Manager, interviews Christie Struckman, VP Analyst, to talk about confronting behaviors that marginalize underrepresented employees. Christie explains that any employee can marginalize or be the target of marginalization and once these behaviors are recognized, they must be confronted.

Listen to interview

For the full interview, listen to the podcast below or read the transcript that follows, which has been edited for clarity and length.

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What is marginalization, and what does it look like in the workplace?

Marginalization is when someone feels their contribution is not valued, or their idea or specific recommendation is not valued, or because they as an individual, with a demographic that they cannot change, is being devalued. An example is when women feel that simply because they are female, they are not being valued by their peers or they’re being treated differently because of that. I’ll give an example of three types of marginalizing behaviors.

Unequal personality trait assessment

Let’s say that we were in a meeting with three male cohorts, and as a group getting really frustrated because we were struggling to make a decision. It felt like we were caught in this sort of endless debate. And one of our male cohorts slammed his fist on the table and said something like, ‘Come on, we have to get our act together and make a decision. Let’s move forward.’

The assessment would be that he is trying to take charge and move forward. But if a woman had done that exact same thing, she would be assessed as exhibiting the behaviors of a “B word.” So think about how uncomfortable it is when you feel that people think that you are a B when you’re trying to move the conversation forward, like your other male cohorts have done on occasion.

Lack of confidence assumption

This occurs when there is a difference between what we think confidence looks like from men and from women. A woman who chooses to be a little bit more quiet in how she approaches things might come across as somebody who’s not as competent. So there’s this linkage between how confidence is exhibited and therefore somebody’s competence, but confidence can look different.

Confidence can look different between men, of course, as well, but there tends to be some sort of natural differences between men and women. And so that difference in how we exhibit confidence being correlated to our competence can be very frustrating.

The “taking credit”

For example, in a meeting someone volunteers an idea that doesn’t get a lot of discussion, but then five minutes later, another team member offers up the exact same suggestion, not giving me credit for the first suggestion, but instead takes it as their own and takes credit.

Read more: Making the Case for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion During Disruption

Do people see this as an HR problem to solve? Do they distance themselves from it at all?

Yes, and I think organizational processes encourage that because it then gets tied to their performance assessments. But when you do that, there’s this huge separation between when the behavior happens and then the HR processes.

And I want to be really clear: The HR processes are necessary, but there’s a lag. I refer to marginalization as a death of 1,000 cuts — no one instance in and of itself is going to inspire someone to reach out to HR and to say, “I feel like I’m being marginalized.” But collectively, they create an environment where people don’t feel supported.

What is psychological safety? Why is it so important?

Psychological safety means creating an environment that encourages, recognizes and rewards individuals for their contributions and their ideas and makes individuals feel safe enough that they’ll take interpersonal risks. The biggest contributor to psychological safety is the relationship between employees and their managers.

Those employees who feel they can have an open and honest conversation may be more comfortable bringing up work challenges. And it is an important part of the management role to create that environment, which is why I’ve put together five steps that managers can do when in the moment they see a marginalizing behavior.

What are the 5 steps to combat marginalization?

  1. Recognize the behaviors. And here’s the hardest part. If you’re not being marginalized, you might not recognize it. So part of the research was going through and creating those 12 behaviors. If you can pay attention to these, you will be making a difference. And so I gave an example of taking credit, that unequal personality trait assessment, the lack of confidence assumption, but there’s pet names, tokenism, sexist statements and “mansplaining,” or what I call overexplaining.
  2. Address those behaviors publicly. You have to do it in the moment. When the situation occurs, quickly call it to attention. It doesn’t need to be a long lecture, but it signals to the marginalized employee that it was noticed.
  3. Coach privately. If you’re managing the employee it’s easier because you can have a conversation. If not, perhaps approach the employee’s manager to share the situation. Don’t assume why the employee behaved that way — it could have been an oversight. Often, once a manager starts paying attention to the behaviors, they’ll realize that it has actually been happening all along, so it’s important to coach the employee privately to change the behavior.
  4. Support the employee who was marginalized privately. Managers need to demonstrate empathy and to spend a little time with the employee so that they feel recognized. There is a chance that the employee didn’t feel marginalized, but it’s better to have the conversation so they feel that the manager is looking out for them.
  5. Affirm the commitment to inclusion publicly. This doesn’t have to be done in the moment, but reaffirm that you care about inclusivity at some point shortly thereafter. This could take the form of reminding people about employee resource groups.

I’m a big proponent of what I call diversity and inclusion norms. These norms are the socially accepted ways that we’re going to work with each other. The value of norms is letting people know what is expected, by giving a language when we need to call somebody out on whether they’re following that. Diversity and inclusion norms can be ones like seek to understand, take turns, listen generously and remember that words matter.

Learn more: Embed Greater Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Your Organization

What other mistakes do you commonly see when it comes to dealing with marginalization?

I find two big mistakes. One is making an attribution about the person who made the marginalized behavior. Keep it to what you heard. For example, ‘Christie stated that I’m worried that we’re not listening to each other, right?’ That’s not attribution about why the behavior happened, but that’s an observation about the behavior. I find that when you keep the conversation to observe behaviors that really can’t be debated, it helps the conversation move forward.

The second mistake is assuming the impact to the woman. That’s why the coaching privately is important to understand how that woman is feeling. Did she feel marginalized? Is this a pattern? Maybe this is happening in many more places. That lets you know where you need to spend more time so that you can help to confront and ferret it out. Or maybe the woman doesn’t feel marginalized. And so it’s important to keep the conversation open and allow employees to have the freedom and the safety to open up.

Are there any final thoughts that you would like to share with our audience?

When I use the language to “‘confront behaviors,” I think that’s very uncomfortable for leaders, especially if it’s around marginalizing. So I expect that this is an uncomfortable proposal, but I’ve had many conversations with clients who told me that it was amazing how impactful confronting a behavior once or twice was. And my assumption is that most of these behaviors are a lack of attention versus an intention to hurt somebody’s feelings.

The good news is that while it might be uncomfortable, I haven’t come across clients who said that they felt like they had to continually confront. And then frankly, what it also does is it narrows down where you might have some issues where you need to get HR involved.

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