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Workplace Microaggressions: Looking Beyond the Stereotypes

“I’m sorry, it was just a joke”

and “I’m sure you know that’s not what I meant” are some phrases individuals from marginalized groups are accustomed to hearing. They are typically made right after a crude joke or comment that hurts the person’s feelings.

People are not immune from such insensitivity even in their workplace. For instance – a woman with Asian-Caucasian roots may be excited about her new role as an accountant. Her enthusiasm could turn into distress when colleagues remark, “Where are you really from?” “You don’t look like one of us.”

Also known as microaggression, such subtle insults directed towards minorities and marginalized groups are more common than you think. Statista found that nearly 51% of UK employees from ethnic minorities faced microaggression in 2021. The same stats for employees in the US were 46%.

Despite the increasing stress on workplace diversity and inclusion, microaggression often remains unaddressed due to its subtle nature. This article will discuss why and how looking beyond the stereotypes to the individual is necessary to break the vicious cycle.

Types and Examples of Microaggression in the Workplace

As stated earlier, microaggressive remarks are usually targeted at individuals from marginalized communities. These groups may span different religious faiths, races, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, and more.

Some people experience microaggression due to overlapping identities. For instance – a disabled trans immigrant may experience discrimination for their sexual orientation, disability, or race. In general, three categories of microaggression are recognized.

  • Microassualts

This type of microaggression is intentional, aimed at discrediting the victim. Behaviors that come under microassaults include deliberate put-downs, bullying, and belittling. Examples include mocking a Muslim woman for her head-covering or linguistic racism because of a different first language.

  • Microinsults

Microinsults are usually targeted at someone not conforming to a stereotype. These are unintentional and may even be a compliment in the eyes of the perpetrator. For instance – reassuring a colleague that they’re not like other Black people is an indirect insult.

  • Microinvalidations

Microinvalidations involve remarks or actions that dismiss an individual’s life experiences. They can be intentional or unintentional. For instance – telling a white colleague that they must have landed the job easily points towards white privilege. It invalidates their struggles, intelligence, and skills.

How Employers Can Take Charge

Leaders are the drivers of change who must recognize workplace microaggression for what it is – a subtle form of discrimination. As the employer, you can take certain steps to ensure workplace productivity is unhampered and employees function in peace.

Encourage Safe, Respectful Interactions

In workplaces with no clear boundaries on microaggressive behaviors, the atmosphere is normally hostile. The victims are already from marginalized groups; they may succumb to discrimination and quit their job. Worse yet, such an issue will only persist if they do not feel safe to communicate.

For example – in many cases, employees do not share the real reason (discrimination) for their resignation. This makes it difficult for leaders to identify where the rottenness lies. When leaders make it clear that everyone is free to express their views on any matter, employees feel safe.

Instead of sending in their resignation letter, they will first approach the relevant authority with concerns surrounding discrimination. This also signals to the team that they should embrace each other’s differences with an open mind.

Increase Employee Awareness Through Training

You’d be surprised to discover that many employees are not even aware of microaggression (it’s subtle, right?). They may consider blatantly offensive remarks as discriminatory but have no problem with “innocent” jesting at the expense of others.

A modern workplace where empathy is consistently practiced requires everyone to be on the same page. Your team needs a solid understanding that every individual sees the world differently (and that’s the beauty of it). Simply condemning their wrongs will not achieve this.

You need a comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity or DEI training program in place. Such programs help create an accepting and diverse work culture where every employee is free to be their authentic selves. What would this training program include? An effective program will tackle different areas where bias is common.

A few examples of these would be lessons on discrimination against working mothers, race, religious faith, and sexual orientation. According to Emtrain, sentiment data is gathered to measure current inclusivity metrics. Based on the results for unconscious bias, pre-existing notions, and social intelligence, leaders get a clear idea of areas that need radical changes in mindset.

Employees can be given courses on –

  • Understanding how their biases influence their decisions and impact others
  • Using the inclusivity mindset during the recruitment process
  • Spotting microaggression and mistaken assumptions in daily communications
  • The importance of empathy and compassion
  • De-escalating disputes through conflict prevention and resolution

Enforce Consequences

Efforts towards an inclusive and microaggression-free workplace are only taken seriously when there are certain and consistent consequences. Tolerance will only send the message that discrimination is acceptable. It can get challenging, so you must keep the following in mind –

  • All employees must be made aware of the acceptable behaviors and actions that will take place in case of violations.
  • The same standards should apply to all levels of the organization, right up to the C-suite.
  • In case of a violation, the HR team must immediately notify the perpetrator (through a one-on-one talk). This should be done in a calm and non-aggressive manner.
  • Follow-ups are essential to ensure such behaviors don’t continue. After three instances, a final warning may be given.

If the perpetrator fails to make amends, they can be dismissed from service.

A Glimpse into an Inclusive Workplace

All approaches that an employer takes to eradicate instances of microaggression in their office must address at least three areas. Firstly, employees must have self and situational awareness to ensure their words do not strike as offensive.

Secondly, employees must know how to tactfully deal with microaggression against colleagues (especially in a group setting). Finally, employees must be equipped to handle microaggression against themselves.

When these three areas are taken care of, it becomes possible to look forward to an inclusive workplace. Let’s see how each case scenario may turn out –

1. Mindful and Compassionate Employees

Whether it’s a lighthearted banter at the coffee machine or a heated debate in the cafeteria, inclusive employees can practice empathy during both. After all, a throwaway comment may become demeaning when said in an insensitive tone.

In any case, leaders never tolerate backbiting or toxic gossip in their workplace. However, your inclusivity strategy should include lessons on having more mindful interactions. This would involve educating employees on –

  • Thinking before they speak
  • Addressing the problem, not the person
  • Sandwiching constructive criticism between positive remarks
  • Requesting changes in place of pointing out faults
  • Admonishing present (unpleasant) behavior, not the person’s personality
  • Respecting others’ choices and individuality
  • Practicing restraint while asking personal questions (particularly those that pertain to one’s identity)
  • Practicing silence in the face of unnecessary conflicts

2. Personal Response to Witnessing Microaggression

Leaders cannot micromanage their workplace, so each employee must know tactful ways of maintaining peace and collaboration. If your inclusivity training is on point, your employees will be equipped to respond well to microaggressions.

  • They will know how to time their response properly. For instance – calling out in group settings can turn the relationship sour. Such instances require safe, one-on-one interactions (especially when the remark was unintentional).
  • They will consider educating themselves more on a perceived microaggression before confronting the individual.
  • They will intervene on behalf of the victim when the perpetrator makes an intentional verbal attack.
  • They will take a curious and interactive approach (in unintentional cases) to understand the perpetrator’s perspective.
  • They will confront the perpetrator with the whole truth but gently and calmly.

Creating employee awareness on handling microaggression (should they observe) has another side to it. The person on the receiving end must also know how to deal with the discomfort of being called out. It is undoubtedly an act of care for all parties involved, but it may not feel so at the moment.

Sometimes, the harsh comment or seemingly backhanded compliment is a product of unadulterated intentions. In such cases, both parties need the strength to deal with invalidated feelings. An inclusive workplace has done its bit to ensure employees know how to –

  • Accept criticism, not as a judgment on their character, but as a helpful check on a mistake
  • Be grateful for the call-in because it helps them become more aware
  • Yield to the short-term discomfort instead of showing resistance and lashing out
  • Apologize immediately and unreservedly, even while they’re struggling to understand their offense
  • Lighten the situation with a genuine curiosity for learning

3. Addressing Microaggression against Oneself

A study found that 53% of black employees agreed to being treated fairly at work, compared to 74% of white counterparts. This is just an example of prevalent racial discrimination in workplaces. Marginalized groups facing microaggression can lose their sense of belonging, thereby suffering from job dissatisfaction.

People facing workplace discrimination are at risk of physical and mental health issues. These include anxiety, depression, increased burnout, substance abuse, etc. Such individuals may not strive for promotions, negotiate their salaries, or express their views in a meeting.

If every employee is educated on dealing with microaggression the right way, it may keep them from resigning. In a healthy workplace, employees deal with microaggression against themselves in the following ways –

  • Seeking support from colleagues, managers, or the HR team
  • Resisting the temptation to change themselves to fit in
  • Expressing their feelings in a non-defensive manner
  • Seeking clarity from the perpetrator before jumping to conclusions
  • Setting up clear boundaries in a firm and gentle manner
  • Using humor to turn the joke on the perpetrator (through mild sarcasm). An example would be to say, “You’re too smart to hold such views.”

Final Thoughts

The primary reason why microaggression is so dangerous is that it can easily turn into discrimination. It was one of the reasons behind the Great Resignation of 2021. Even today, employees are left with no choice but to leave after weeks or months of “indirect, unintended cruelty.”

The sad reality is that remote employees can also be the target of microaggressive comments or jokes. An obvious example would be someone “complimenting” a black female colleague they’re wearing their hair naturally during a video call.

Unless leaders step up and implement some serious changes, they will continue to lose valuable employees.

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