Civil servants have been encouraged to identify so-called ‘microaggressions’ in the workplace and to regard them as evidence of potential sexual or racial discrimination.
According to an investigation by the Times, staff at various government departments and public bodies have been instructed that everyday gestures like rolling their eyes, questioning someone’s professional experience, and using phrases like “black spot” during conversations, can convey hostility if the person on the receiving end happens to be from a traditionally “marginalised” group, like women and minorities.
As per one of the externally provided training schemes, microaggressions constitute “tiny, often unconscious gestures, facial expressions, postures, words and tone of voice which can influence how included (or not included) the people around us feel”.
In order to promote “a culture of transparency and inclusion” civil servants undertaking these sessions are re-trained to nod their heads during interactions with colleagues.
Since 2021, more than £160,000 has been spent by the government on hiring private sector consultations to train staff to see these perceived slights, and to modify their speech and behaviour accordingly.
The concept of a microaggression is culled from Critical Race Theory, and implicitly assumes that the people committing the ‘aggression’ will invariably be white and male, while those at the receiving end are those categories who have been historically marginalised.
As Patrick West notes for the Spectator, it’s this bleak, Manichean worldview, in which everyone is either an ‘oppressor’ or one of the ‘oppressed’, that appears to have been borrowed in its entirety by the Civil Service, and reveals itself in the assumption that ‘microaggressions’ are only ever committed by the powerful, flow one way, and must therefore be racist or sexist in nature.
Attempting to divide a workforce up according to pre-determined identity traits would be obnoxious at any time, says Tom Slater in the Telegraph, “but it’s particularly obnoxious that civil servants were being lectured about minor slights at a time when acts of violent Jew hatred – antisemitic macroaggressions, if you will – were on the up”.
And lectured they were. The Education and Skills Funding Agency, a government body responsible for monitoring the value of spending in schools, spent more than £1,000 per worker on microaggression training for its staff.
Other enthusiasts include the Department of Transport, which spent £64,807, and the Competition and Markets Authority, a regulatory body, which spent £61,776.
At the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), £13,728 of taxpayers’ money was spent on microaggression training for 45 digital staff, while the Department for Education spent £18,304.
The government’s adoption of diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) training schemes of this kind contrasts with its intention, stated as far back as 2020, that unconscious bias training for civil servants would be phased out in all departments, following an internal review showing how it failed to change behaviour and might make matters worse.
According to this review, which was commissioned by the Government Equalities Office and took a research-led approach to reviewing the evidence on unconscious basis and diversity training, “there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups”.
One of the best-known academic assessments of these workplace-based schemes reaches a similar conclusion. According to sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev, when it comes to the stated aim of reducing bias and promoting equal opportunity, DEI training which imposes de facto speech and gesture codes has “failed spectacularly”.
Dobbin and Kalev evaluated the impact of DEI initiatives at more than 800 companies over three decades, and discovered that they have minimal if any long-term benefit for staff relations or workplace productivity, while at the same time generating resistance and resentment.
Other studies have found evidence that the fear of saying ‘the wrong thing’ and being accused of ‘racism’, ‘unconscious bias’ or ‘microaggressions’ has a chilling effect that curtails free expression in the workplace and can lead to unproductive, highly scripted conversations between people with different characteristics, or in some cases no conversation at all.
A Cabinet Office spokesman has now said that the government was considering introducing a presumption against external spending on equality, diversity and inclusion.
That sounds sensible… until you realise that governments departments and public bodies all now have their own in-house programmes facilitating exactly the same type of training – according to the Times, for instance, the DWP claims to have shown 1,694 staff members its own webinar about inclusive leadership, which refers to how microaggressions may make others feel excluded.