Why Assuming Positive Intent in the Workplace is Counterproductive

In my career in Technology, I have experienced many interesting situations that are directly linked to the lack of diversity. As I look back over the last 10 years working for different Software vendors, I recall many situations that left me feeling not so good.

I remember working at a booth at a Technology tradeshow, representing the company with my colleagues and wearing the corporate uniform; some men who were attending the tradeshow as delegates would come to me and ask “are you a hostess?” or even “can I speak to someone technical?”. There is nothing wrong with being a hostess or with not being the technical person on the booth, however the assumption that I was a hostess or that I was not here in a technical role, purely based on my gender, was wrong;

I also remember being told far more often than I wanted “Your english is so good!” by some co-workers who, I am sure, had a positive intent.

One woman attending a tradeshow and who was visiting our booth at an event asked me, after having spoken with me for a few minutes: “so where are you from?”, even though I had been living in the UK for more than 10 years and I was holding the British citizenship.

What can you do to avoid these types of micro aggressions and micro behaviour in the workplace?

First of all, accept that microaggressions are a real thing; you may feel it’s an exaggeration if you have not been on the receiving end; denying the existence is counterproductive;

Create a forum for discussion; host discussion groups in your workplace or in your team to highlight micro aggressions;

Finally, stand up against microaggressions; if you hear someone asking “where are you really from”, say something; ask the person asking the question why they are asking this question, what makes them say that or why they are mentioning it;

The co-editor at says “the harm is that telling people to assume good intent is a sign that if they come to you with a concern, you will minimize their feelings, police their reactions and question their perceptions; it tells marginalised people that you don't see codes of conduct as tools to address systemic discrimination but as tools to manage personal conflicts”.

Telling your employees or colleagues to assume good intent is telling them whose feelings you plant at the centre when an issue arises in your community. It gives careless employees a “get out of jail” free card. Employees can say inappropriate things and claim that they did not mean to be offensive. It also puts people of under-represented groups in a “breaking the rule” position if they express something inappropriate that happened to them: they are not assuming positive intent when they object, they are seen as being disruptive or overly negative. It can become a blanket excuse for inappropriate behaviour of all kinds.  Instead, we should set the rule around demonstrating positive behaviour in action.  It is worth noting that micro inequities and unconscious bias are interconnected and a diversity consultant and HR training consultant can greatly help educating a team about these topics as well as equality at work.

The bottomline is that assuming positive intent is not good enough; instead, rules of engagement must be implemented, forums of discussions must be created and every employee should be educated on what micro aggressions are and how to fight them.

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