You may have experienced or witnessed what are called “microaggressions”: small comments or behaviors that degrade others or make people feel unwelcome. Some examples are a person of color who hears colleagues say they were hired to fill a diversity quota; a young scientist who hears senior scientists say she doesn’t have anything to contribute because she lacks experience; a Latina employee who is assigned green chile stew for every potluck; an older staff member who is routinely excluded from participating in new initiatives because “he doesn’t have any fresh ideas after 30 years here”; a transgender employee who is misgendered repeatedly; a person of color who is asked, “Where are you really from?”; or a flippant comment regarding a person’s role and responsibility as not being important or of value.
In each case, the comments might seem insignificant, but in reality, they can be undermining and degrade interpersonal relationships.
Whereas in the past, the attitude towards behaviors such as these was often, “Just ignore it,” or “Don’t cause a scene,” increasingly, the expectation is to become an active bystander and speak up to create safe spaces for everyone. A bystander is anyone who sees or hears of behavior that appears worthy of comment or action. To that end, many workplaces, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, are using active bystander training to educate employees about how best to respond to microaggressions.
“Most of us have witnessed or experienced anecdotes in the workplace about microaggressions,” said Laura McClellan, co-chair of the Active Bystander Employee Resource Group at Los Alamos. “Or maybe some people have committed one and don’t know how to mend the rift, have been on the receiving end of one, or have been a bystander.”
Active bystanders can highlight positive acts that might otherwise be invisible or overlooked. They can redirect or de-escalate negative acts that might be problematic. Bystanders might be colleagues who are subordinate or senior to the person whose comment or behavior warrants reaction. This is an effort to work with others to acknowledge and better understand inappropriate behaviors.
At Los Alamos, voluntary active bystander training is offered through the Laboratory’s Active Bystander Employee Resource Group, whose mission is to empower all employees to speak up to reinforce positive behaviors and address negative ones. The ERG strives to cultivate a workplace where all employees are safe to speak up as active bystanders and are accountable for creating healthy dialogue. Since the inception of the Active Bystander ERG in 2017, more than 500 Laboratory employees have participated in these trainings.
“I present tips on psychological safety at monthly safety and security meetings,” said Nikki Cunningham, a system analyst at Los Alamos and Active Bystander ERG member. Psychological safety is the belief held by all team members that they’re in a safe place to take interpersonal risks—such as asking questions—without fear of retribution. “Lab employees appreciate a focus on these topics that emphasize inclusion and belonging as an important part of job satisfaction and social wellbeing, especially in our teleworking culture. Recently an employee told me he liked the tip to ‘adopt the mindset of a student’ because learning never stops.”
McClellan added, “At a recent Active Bystander meeting, a member shared her story of speaking to a manager about a pattern of microaggressions. Her actions resulted in a safer, more inclusive work environment and a better working relationship among her team members. She thanked the Active Bystander ERG for providing her with the resources to feel empowered to speak up.”
In addition, during the mask-wearing and work-from-home phases of the pandemic, the ERG updated it presentations to include advice on how to gently remind others of the mask-wearing requirement without alienating them, and tips for facilitating online meetings to be more inclusive of introverts and others who seemed unengaged because of the remote connection.
The Active Bystander Employee Resource Group echoes a tenet of the Laboratory’s principle: How we do work is as important as what we do. By helping to educate and provide resources to employees, the group hopes to cultivate a safe, welcoming environment that values integrity and teamwork among all Laboratory employees.
The Active Bystander ERG has a website accessible to the public that includes multitudes of resources.