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Take care of your people and protect your business

“You know he didn’t mean anything by it. Just blow it off. You know how he is.” Slights hurt whether they are unintended or not. The real problems arise when those slights—typically unintentional—become frequent and go unaddressed. One paper cut won’t bother you, but over time ,a body full of them is quite a different story. Learn to spot, avoid and address microaggressions.

What Are Microaggressions?

First coined in 1970 by Harvard University psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, microaggression is a term used for commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.” (Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, p. xvi).

Initially, microaggression was a term Dr. Pierce used to describe the behavior he witnessed from white Americans towards Black Americans, but it has evolved to include other affected minority groups, including LGBTQ+, those with disabilities, gender status, immigration status, and any other marginalized or underrepresented groups. Think of microaggressions as slights inflicted against any underrepresented group, far beyond race or ethnicity, by those in the majority.

How Do Microaggressions Harm a Company?

A company culture where microaggressions exist hurts the very people the company depends upon to achieve its goals: employees. When employees are hurt, it manifests in several negative ways both psychologically and physically. Ultimately, microaggressions get in the way of creating a more inclusive workplace environment for everyone. Below are several harmful impacts microaggressions can have.

Decreased Productivity

Employee productivity is one of the most critical measures in business. Continued exposure to microaggressions can lead to lowered self-esteem and confidence levels. Employees in this state often have the lower problem-solving abilities. When people are made to feel “less than,” even unintentionally, they are made to feel inferior and thus incapable of performing to the expectations of their role. When this occurs, employees’ quality and output of work can suffer.

Increased Anti-social Behavior

Someone who has been a repeated target of microaggressions often finds reasons not to participate in team activities, company celebrations, or other social gatherings. They feel disengaged from their work and/or peers, performing what they can just to get through the day and avoiding interaction. Absenteeism rates may increase. Gone unaddressed, frustration can lead to rage and, in the worst case, violence in the workplace.

Adverse Health Impacts

Continual exposure to microaggressions can really take a toll on a person. It can lead to resentment, anger, and ultimately, depression. Over time, this becomes trauma to the body, often manifesting in hypertension, migraines, or worse.

Examples of Microaggressions In the Workplace

Microaggressions are rooted in bias and stereotypes. They can be verbal or non-verbal. Here are just a few examples.

“Where Are You From? No, Where Are You Really From?”

This comment can be offensive as it can make people feel that they don’t belong. Many naturalized citizens have been in the US for decades, yet still, maintain an accent from their native country. Other insensitivities include mocking their accent or telling them that you’ll call them a name that you determine because you cannot pronounce theirs.

Prejudice

There are so many forms of prejudice. Just a few examples include:

  • Assuming black hair is unprofessional.
  • Assuming that people of color are the office-cleaning crew.
  • Assuming the woman in a meeting is in charge of ordering lunch and note-taking.
  • Assuming the elder white man is in charge.

Prejudice is rooted in assumptions and stereotyping, not facts. When prejudice leads to behavior, microaggressions follow.

Telling a Woman She’s Bossy

Men get labeled as “assertive” when they hold firm on a point, whereas women can be mislabeled as “aggressive” or “bossy” when taking the lead on a matter.

Telling a Person of Color That They Are “So Articulate”

This assumes that there is some amount of surprise on the part of the perpetrator that a person of color can be articulate at all.

How to Handle Microaggressions in the Workplace

Remember, it is the accumulation of incidents, not necessarily a singular one, that defines microaggressions.

Step 1: Remain Calm

Your first reaction may be emotional and serve to either put the perpetrator on the defensive or even escalate the matter. Take a breath and pause before responding.

Step 2: Assume Good Intent

By definition, microaggressions are unintentional. Recognize that the perpetrator may not understand the underlying assumptions associated with the comment or behavior they made. Their comment or action may have been an innocent error.

Step 3: Address the Situation

Because a slight is unintentional does not mean it can be excused or ignored. The best way to prevent further incidents is to address them as they happen in a constructive manner. How you address the situation will depend entirely on the relationship between the parties. Here are two different suggested approaches.

  • Factual. HR can coach the employee to address the perpetrator by stating how the comment or behavior made them feel, such as, “What you said hurt my feelings/embarrassed me.”
  • Light-hearted. HR can coach the employee on how to use humor to deflect potential defensiveness but still get their point across. Here’s an example from the lone female in a meeting whom the leader assumed would become the scribe: “I know I’m wearing my secretary outfit today, but can someone else take the notes this time around? I’d like to be able to participate more today.”

Step 4: Focus on the Comment or Behavior

Try not to shoot the messenger. In addressing the situation, focus strictly on the comment or the behavior directed toward you. Try asking a question to bring clarity to the moment (“Could you explain to me what you mean by …?”). From there, you may have the opportunity to share another perspective that will be constructive and serve to redirect future comments or behaviors from the perpetrator.

Step 5: Practice Compassion

When people make mistakes unintentionally, they may not realize the impact of their transgression. In most cases, the perpetrator’s intent doesn’t match their impact. Kindness goes a long way in encouraging that we all need to learn more about one another, especially when there are so many people from different groups and backgrounds with whom we interface in the workplace.

Tips for Preventing Microaggressions in the Workplace

The best prevention is to take a formal, proactive stance against microaggressions in the workplace. Employers who care about having a people-first culture and fully engaged employees take measures to define acceptable parameters for comments, behaviors, and environments.

Tip 1: Provide Education

Teach your workforce about microaggressions and the damage that they can do over time, intentional or not. Make training an element of onboarding. Keep the conversations going. Learn things that can be considered to be slights by other groups.

Tip 2: Policy Inclusion

Consider including a statement about microaggression in your employee handbook as a part of your Code of Conduct. Publish it and ensure all employees have access to it.

Tip 3: Hold Managers and Employees Accountable

Ensure accountability by modeling and acknowledging active bystanders. Active bystanders are employees who witness an interaction and can say something when microaggression occurs. Ensure that microaggressions are addressed constructively (see the tips above) Practice empathy. Don’t get defensive.

Tip 4: Don’t Be Fooled by Colorblindness

People are well-intended when they claim to be “colorblind,” but that is simply untrue. We are human. All people see race. It may be tempting to deny it, but in the long term, it’s far better to learn and learn to appreciate differences.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Microaggressions

They can be interpreted as such, especially if the perpetrator goes uncorrected and the behavior continues.
Not directly, but microaggressions can quickly accelerate into a hostile work environment, which can be the subject of a lawsuit if the target experiences negative consequences associated with performance, pay or working conditions.
No. Microaggressions are unintentional comments, behaviors, or environments. Harassment is intentional. That said, there is certainly a fine line between the two because it depends on the target’s interpretation.
Yes. No one wants to work for a company that makes them feel less than, othered, or disengaged.

Milly Christmann is a high energy, operationally oriented talent management leader with extensive expertise in human resources, sales management, service and operations. She is recognized for collaborating with leaders to achieve their business goals by unleashing the power of an engaged workforce. By using process improvement, technology and strong, impassioned people skills as well as by attracting, developing and retaining top talent, Ms. Christmann drives change that matters.

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