By definition, microaggressions are actions or comments that negatively impact groups and communities that are vulnerable to discrimination and exclusion. These behaviors are subtle, indirect, and can be intentional or unintentional, however, they always communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes.
Unfortunately, because this subject is not often addressed or talked about on an everyday basis, aggressors may not even realize they are showing insensitivity or bias towards a person or group.
In this article, we will list the various types of microaggressions in the workplace, how to recognize them as well as actions for employees and employers alike to help reduce or eliminate workplace microaggressions.
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Microaggressions Target Marginalized Groups
Despite all efforts to bring diversity and inclusion to the workplace, microaggressions are still more widespread than we realize. They target members of marginalized groups or folks who are in social, political or economic disadvantage.
The identities or communities most often targeted include:
- Sexual orientation
- Socioeconomic class
- Citizenship status
Microaggressions can also be intersectional, referring to aggression directed to someone who belongs to multiple marginal groups. For example, a lesbian black woman. She is not only subject to racial microaggressions but also related to her sexual orientation and gender.
Different Types of Workplace Microaggressions:
Understanding the different types of microaggressions is very important in order to eliminate the problem in the workplace.
The most common categories of workplace microaggressions are: microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations. Each of them can potentially affect a person's ability to experience social acceptance or belonging at work. This keeps employees from reaching their full potential and productivity.
Let's review each of them.
A microassault is a type of discrimination or criticism that is displayed openly and intentionally to discredit a person or group belonging to marginalized communities.
This type of microaggression includes bullying behavior such as name-calling, displaying racially offensive symbols in the office, slurs related to sexuality or race and other offensive language or actions directed to minority groups.
Microinsults are comments expressing that a certain demographic group is not respected, but the person targeted is seen as an exception to this stereotype. This behavior is unconscious and unintentional and usually the person delivering the microinsult doesn't even realize they have insulted others.
One example is when a man of color is "complimented" by his co-worker for being well-spoken or articulate. This may seem as a nice comment to the person who said it, but it is perceived as if people of color are expected to be less competent.
A microinvalidation is when a person unintentionally uses diminishing comments or actions that exclude, negate or dismiss the thoughts, feelings and experiences of marginalized groups.
For example, when someone expresses discomfort in response to a coworker's racial comment and gets dismissive reactions like "You're just being sensitive" or "Let it go, he didn't mean it like that".
All these behaviors communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages but are not only expressed verbally. Here is an overview on how these microaggressions can manifest in the workplace.
How can Microaggressions Manifest at Work?
Microaggressions in the workplace can be communicated in different ways, some more obvious than others, and they can significantly impact an organizations' health creating an illegal hostile work environment and compromising employee engagement.
These are the 3 ways in which microaggressions can come up at work:
A verbal microaggression is when someone says something disrespectful, rude or stigmatizing to a marginalized group. These comments or questions may not be intended to be harmful but are usually perceived as upsetting and offensive to members of minority groups.
Examples of verbal microaggressions:
- Asking a gay co-worker "Who is the 'man' in your relationship?"
- Giving someone a nickname because their real name is "too difficult to pronounce"
- Comments like "You're so smart for a woman"
Behavioral microaggression refers to intentional or unintentional behavior or action that is discriminatory or hurtful to a certain group of people, often referring to identity stereotypes. A person may show discomfort, or have a negative change in their behavior when being around a member of a marginalized group.
Examples of behavioral microaggressions:
- Not including a co-worker with disability from an off-site event assuming they are not capable of participating.
- Assuming an older coworker will not be able to learn or use new technology.
- When a white person waits to ride the next elevator because a person of color is on it.
Environmental microaggressions happen when there is a lack of diversity and inclusion representation in the workplace. This type of microaggression is the hardest to identify and solve because there is usually no apparent offender. They are manifested in the overall environment of an organization and do not target a specific person.
Examples of environmental microaggressions:
- Providing training material displaying only heteronormative behavior.
- Facilities or buildings that do not offer easy access to people with disabilities (accessible toilets, door widths, elevators etc...)
- Rooms and hallways with pictures of only white upper-class male figures.
How to Stop Microaggressions at Work:
Every individual can make a positive change and shift perspectives as far as diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Building a safe and healthy work environment for everyone is not easy, in fact, it requires conscious and constant efforts. Both employees and employers play an important role when it comes to achieving a workplace free of microaggressions.
This is what you can start with.
How Can Employees Help?
It is likely that you have committed a microaggression against a coworker before, or that you will commit one in the future. We're humans, we make mistakes. However, this is where it is helpful to become conscious of our surroundings and adopt a mindset of growth.
Here are 3 things you can put in practice at work that will help reduce or eliminate microaggressions.
Being exposed to different perspectives will help you build the necessary social awareness and align your thoughts with your actions. Books, TV shows, podcasts, and online blogs are only some of the resources available for your self-education.
By making an effort to educate yourself, you will start to uncover and recognize your own prejudices and unconscious biases, making it easier for you to avoid behaviors that lead to microaggressions in the workplace.
Advocate for co-workers when you see a microaggression
Once you have learned about the different types of microaggressions, you will be able to easily identify them in the workplace, and when you do, take action. There are different ways in which you can step up and help.
One way to help is speaking up and professionally intervening on behalf of the victim. Simply saying things like "I didn't get the joke, can you explain it?" or "What makes you think that?". Basically, statements show resistance to the aggression and make the offender think twice about their behavior.
If you don't feel safe confronting the perpetrator, don't be afraid to escalate the issue to the HR department. Remember, even if you are not the victim, you have the right to report any microaggression incident that you witness.
Propose organizational changes
As an employee, you have a very important input in an organization. Your ideas can lead to significant changes in your workplace and you are encouraged to express and promote them.
For example, you could start a petition for gender-neutral restrooms, or lactation rooms for new mothers. You can also suggest focus groups or cultural awareness programs so you can learn about your coworkers and how to communicate with them more effectively.
How Can Employers Help?
As an employer, it is important that you recognize microaggressions in the workplace for what they are (a subtle form of discrimination). You should know how to manage them effectively, so you can prevent them from impacting the performance of your employees as well as productivity and profitability.
These are the 3 steps to put into practice:
Increase Awareness Among Employees
Most microaggressions are unintentional and they derive from a lack of awareness as well as exposure to different experiences. As an employer, you have the responsibility to address all incidents and provide the tools necessary so your workers can follow the desired behaviors
Your employees must be trained regularly in topics like diversity, inclusion, equity, empathy, and unconscious biases. Effective training will cultivate a culture of respect, as employees become more sensitive and aware of their behavior towards others.
In addition to training, you can use daily online communications as well as visual aids like posters in the hallways and restrooms. Anything you can do to promote diversity and inclusion practices.
Encourage Safe and Respectful Communication
Not addressing microaggressions in the workplace will lead to a hostile work environment for everyone. Victims are usually already marginalized (women, LGBT community or employees with disabilities), and these aggressions can easily escalate to a culture of discrimination or a loss of employees that do not feel valued in your organization.
You must encourage your team to respect and listen to each other, especially when confronting microaggressions. Employees should feel safe when bringing up their concerns about racism, sexism, or any other topic. Sensitivity training sessions are a great way to accomplish open and respectful communication among your workers.
The implementation of disciplinary actions and consistent consequences is an essential step to effectively address microaggression incidents. These disciplinary actions must be known and visible to all employees. This is easier said than done, and every organization will face some difficulties along the way.
Some advice to keep in mind in order to enforce consequences equally:
- All employees should be notified of the policies, acceptable behaviors, and actions to be taken in case of violations.
- Leaders, managers, and front-line employees must be held to the same standards.
- In case of a microaggression incident, immediate response from the HR department is very important. The aggressor should be made aware of why his actions were considered abusive and be given a verbal warning, assuring that follow-up will take place.
- Make sure to follow up on incidents. If the behavior continues after the first warning, apply harder measures.
Tolerating microaggressions at work sends a message of inequality, showing that you value certain employees over others. Because they are directed to minorities or marginalized groups, these offenses can escalate to cases of harassment or discrimination and lead your company to face legal consequences.
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