Ever had a boss tell you to keep talking while she checked her BlackBerry? How about a team leader who pronounces your name wrong? Such slights may not mean much individually, but added up they can lead--at least in terms of employee retention--to death by a thousand paper cuts.
As corporate America struggles to promote more women and minorities up the ladder, a new workplace buzzword is moving from executive suite to lowly cubicle. Part pop psychology, part human-resources jargon, the term microinequities puts a name on all the indirect offenses that can demoralize a talented employee. Equipped with this handy label, scores of companies, including IBM and Wells Fargo, are starting to hold training seminars that don't so much teach office etiquette as hold up a mirror showing how such minor, often nonverbal unpleasantries affect everyone.
This growing awareness is due largely to the efforts of globetrotting consultant Stephen Young, a former chief diversity officer at JPMorgan Chase who has addressed audiences as varied as rocket scientists at Raytheon and readers of Seventeen magazine on the power of small signals. "It's not so much what I say, but what you hear," he says. One of his most effective demonstrations--the one that has left even mighty CEOs stammering--has him role-playing a guy who is less and less interested in what a speaker is saying. "When you do this," Young says of the exercise, "you see performance change right on the spot."
His goal is to make even hardened executives recognize themselves--or, at the very least, their superiors--when he acts like the bigwig who keeps glancing at his watch during a meeting or cuts off a colleague midsentence to answer his cell phone. "It's not just mumbo-jumbo, feel-good diversity training," says Gerald Lord, V.P. of finance and strategy for Campbell Soup's North American division. After sitting through one of Young's three-hour, Dr. Phil--style seminars last month, Lord is convinced that getting his fellow executives to pay attention to microgestures can help improve Campbell's bottom line.
Here's why: many of the companies that already spend big bucks to recruit and train talented employees are bracing for even stiffer competition as baby boomers start to retire amid a shortage of skilled labor. Teaching execs to be on the lookout for microinequities--a term that has bounced around academia since a professor at M.I.T. coined it in 1973--is a cheap way to hold on to hard-won recruits. After all, says Andrea Bernstein, diversity chair at the New York City-- based white-shoe law firm Weil Gotshal, "you never know, when somebody leaves, if she would have been the next rainmaker." And no company wants even a single good idea to fall through the cracks because a manager has subconsciously written off the employee making the suggestion.