While microaggressions may seem small, they can significantly impact workplace morale and productivity.
No matter how progressive or diverse your workplace may be, microaggressions are bound to happen. Whether it’s intentional or not, these subtle slights can have a big impact on morale and productivity in the workplace. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, as per Merriam-Webster, microaggression is defined as a subtle, often unconscious comment or action that expresses prejudice against members of marginalized or non-mainstream groups (such as racial minorities).
While microaggressions may seem trivial, they can impact the people who experience them far more than we thought. Besides negatively affecting productivity, studies have shown that microaggressions can lead to low self-esteem, increased stress levels, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
What are the different types of microaggression?
Microaggressions can take different forms. They can be verbal (e.g. making racist or demeaning comments) and nonverbal (e.g. rolling your eyes or showing dismissive body language when someone from a marginalized group is speaking). Broadly speaking, there are three categories of microaggressions—microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations.
This is when someone behaves to deliberately discriminate against others, such as making an intentionally hurtful joke to mock or degrade a person because of their race or ethnicity. Yet, due to a lack of awareness, the perpetrator believes they are doing nothing wrong.
This is a comment or action that unintentionally discriminates against an individual for their social status, family background, racial heritage, identity, etc. For example, making assumptions about poor people, such as that they are likely to be untrustworthy or unethical.
This is when a person’s comment invalidates or undermines the experiences or identity of a marginalized group. For example, when a person of color tells their story of experiencing racism, a white person telling them “that’s not true” is an invalidation of the person of color’s reality.
No matter what form they take, microaggressions are hurtful and can make people feel unwelcome in their workplace. To create a more inclusive workplace for all employees, it is important to take steps to combat them.
How to tackle microaggressions in the workplace
Allyship is about taking action to support someone marginalized or oppressed. It is an active process of learning about and standing up for the rights of others. In the workplace, allyship can take many forms, from speaking up when you witness a microaggression to championing diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Megan Hogan, Chief Diversity Officer at Goldman Sachs, believes that being a true ally to your peers is all about authenticity and longevity—to make people feel heard, seen and valued. She stresses that it is important for managers and bosses not just to express their support when an upsetting event occurs but to make allyship part of the company culture. To do this, they need to ensure their employees have meaningful connections with each other and build trust.
Increasingly, companies are using mandatory allyship programs to inspire employees on how to be better allies. For instance, Microsoft’s program includes ten different segments, including self-paced classes, videos that portray various work scenarios and facilitated sessions around building skills and practicing allyship behavior.
The art of confrontation
Confronting microaggressions in the workplace is essential to creating a respectful and inclusive environment. Of course, this can be difficult, especially if you’re not the one who’s being targeted. However, it’s crucial to speak up and show solidarity with your colleagues.
If the person committing the microaggression is closely connected with you, it might not be a good idea to go too harsh on them. In this case, NiCole Buchanan, an associate professor of psychology who leads workshops on the topic of microaggression at Michigan State University, suggests, “Keep the initial conversation short and schedule a time to talk about it later to give the other person [the perpetrator] time to think things over.” Since these confrontations can be nerve-wracking, she recommends you plan what you want to say beforehand and practice with friends first.
Implement Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives
Organizations can implement Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the workplace to combat microaggression. DEI initiatives are actions an organization takes to prioritize building a diverse workforce and creating an equal and inclusive environment for all genders, races, sexes, cultures and religions. Through DEI initiatives like pay equity analysis, employee resource groups and training, an inclusive work environment can be built.
Some major companies are taking a stand on DEI initiatives by publicly releasing information about who they hire—their gender, racial and ethnic composition. For example, global consulting firm Deloitte’s yearly DEI Transparency Report delivers detailed public information about race, gender, ethnicity, LGBQT+, veterans and disabled employees.
Organizations must take proactive steps to combat microaggressions in the workplace. This includes supporting employees when they seek help, encouraging open dialog and establishing clear policies and procedures. Also, providing training on recognizing and addressing microaggressions, implementing policies that protect against discrimination and creating a safe space for employees to report any incidents of microaggression.
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