Microaggressions in the workplace are more subtle forms of blatant toxic behavior that can lead to an unhealthy and divisive work environment.
In a way, microaggressions are more difficult to manage than toxicity because they’re more insidious - it’s often hard to tell when someone is displaying a microaggression in the workplace.
Don’t lose hope, though, because there are concrete, actionable steps you can be taking today to snuff out microaggressions and address them before they get out of hand.
Below is everything you need to know about microaggressions at work and how to address microaggressions in the workplace.
What does microaggression mean?
Microaggressions are best described as verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative insults toward a person or a group.
Common microaggressions usually take place in the form of subtle, discriminatory behavior toward minority groups, such as racial or ethnic minorities.
Microaggressions can be as simple and subtle as a look or a hostile tone shift toward someone, but they nonetheless convey bigoted sentiments on the part of the agressor.
Microaggression in workplace examples
To get a better understanding of what microaggressions are and the kind of scope they cover, let’s look at some common verbal microaggression examples in the workplace.
- “When I see you, I don’t see color.” This is a common microaggression geared toward Black Americans and African Americans. Black microaggressions are common in the workplace, and this specific example indicates that the speaker doesn’t acknowledge their Blackness and is effectively denying their racial identity.
- “We are all one race: the human race.” This, again, implies a direct denial of collective experiences shared by individuals of specific ethnic or racial backgrounds.
- “You are so articulate.” When you say this to a racial or ethnic minority, it implies that individuals from that group do not typically have the capacity to communicate competently or hold an intelligent conversation.
- “I see your hair is big today! Are you planning to wear it like that to the client meeting?” This is a big one that essentially normalizes a narrow, racially charged view of grooming in the workplace. It implies that natural black hairstyles are unprofessional.
- “Everyone can succeed in society if they work hard enough.” People from different backgrounds share different challenges, and when this kind of statement is made regarding minority groups, it overlooks the unique socio-economic challenges that many groups face and implies that unfavorable financial outcomes for minorities are solely a result of their laziness.
- “You should try smiling more.” Geared predominantly toward women, this example is communicating that a primary role for women in the workplace is to be more physically appealing, which is problematic for several reasons. It carries a sexist double standard that men don’t have to abide by, and it implies that women aren’t that busy and have time to flash smiles to everyone they encounter in the office.
There are a number of other ways that employees could be displaying and communicating microaggressions to their coworkers. Often, it’s not done out of malice, but it’s hurtful nonetheless. If you’re on the receiving end of microaggressions, there are a few ways you can go about dealing with the situation.
Dealing with microaggressions
For those on the receiving end of microaggressions, there aren’t a lot of options that don’t require some level of discomfort or confrontation.
Still, it’s important to act if you feel like you’ve been wronged in some way, and the following responses are just a few ways to deal with microaggressions in the workplace:
- Let it go - The least recommended of the three, simply letting it go is probably the easiest option for a lot of employees. In some cases, if it was a minor aggression or otherwise harmless act, this might be an okay option. But in many cases, ignoring a microaggression can be one of the most draining tactics. While it might be a convenient option in the moment, enduring microaggressions over time can be emotionally taxing and allow for resentment to grow.
- Call it out immediately - For many, this will be the most difficult reaction to follow through with. However, if done in an even-keeled and professional manner, this can be the most effective option. Responding to a microaggression immediately allows you to call out the individual’s behavior and inform them of why it’s an issue while the interaction is still fresh in their mind.
- Bring it up later - Bringing up the incident later allows you to calmly approach the individual behind the microaggression and inform them why the microaggression was hurtful or offensive. While this might seem more appealing than bringing up the issue immediately, the risk lies in the individual forgetting the interaction all together.
While there isn’t a hard and fast rule for how to deal with every microaggression in every situation, relying on these three options will provide you with a good start for addressing microaggressions. Try to evaluate and assess the most appropriate line of action for each unique situation.
Workplace microaggression training
As an employer, investing in microaggression training will not just give your employees the knowledge and tools to minimize microaggressions in the workplace, it also sends a direct message to your employees. It communicates that you’re dedicated to making your work environment a safe and welcoming space for everyone in the office.
Integrating microaggression training in the workplace can help to:
- Teach employees ways to identify and call out microaggressions and make sure they feel comfortable doing so. Diversity training programs and events can be taught alongside this kind of training.
- Create a culture of inclusivity that will decrease microaggressions. When you create a company culture that supports diversity and inclusivity, your team members will follow suit.
- Educate employees on the issue of microaggressions and discrimination in the workplace. Your employees may not even know that what they’re saying is an issue, so providing informative and educational material is a must when it comes to diversity and workplace microaggression training.
- Bolster your brand, reputation, and ability to acquire qualified future candidates. Appealing to applicants as an inclusive, welcoming company will allow you to attract the widest range of quality candidates.
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