How to handle microaggressions in the workplace

Microaggressions in the workplace

Overtly aggressive behavior is easy to spot, and nearly everyone agrees these types of actions are unacceptable in the workplace. However, microaggressions are far more subtle. In some cases, the perpetrator of a microaggression isn't aware of the harm they're doing. Victims, meanwhile, might not know how to respond to the demeaning words and actions they face, though they're certainly aware of what's happening. It's important for employers to bring microaggressions to light and educate their employees at all levels on how to handle these types of interactions. 

Working to eliminate microaggressions in the workplace will foster a kinder, more inclusive, and more productive work environment. Here are some of the key things you need to know about identifying and addressing these types of detrimental interactions.

What are microaggressions?

It's important for both employers and employees to understand microaggressions so everyone within the organization can take the appropriate actions to minimize these types of interactions.

Microaggressions are brief comments or actions that communicate a derogatory message. The term "microaggression" was first coined in 1970 by Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce. At the time, the word referred to things white people did or said to demean Black people. MIT economist Mary Rowe extended the definition of microaggressions to include words or actions that demeaned women. Today, a microaggression can occur by and toward any person.

Microaggressions commonly target marginalized groups such as immigrants, people with disabilities, or members of the LGBTQ+ community. A microaggression can target an individual's religion, socioeconomic status, race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. While some microaggressions are meant as intentional slights, others are entirely unintentional. It's important for both employers and employees to understand microaggressions so everyone within the organization can take the appropriate actions to minimize these types of interactions.

Types of microaggressions

A piece published by Teachers College, Columbia University, identified three types of microaggressions:

  • Microassaults: Microassaults are among the most obvious microaggressions. These interactions explicitly insult or attack another individual based on their race, gender, religion, or other characteristics. Using a term like "colored" or displaying a Swastika are clear microassaults.
  • Microinsults: Microinsults are more subtle, but they still convey insensitivity toward another person. Though someone might unintentionally convey a microinsult, it doesn't negate the impact of this microaggression. In fact, the perpetrator's unknowing attitude can feel even more hurtful, because it implies this person takes it for a fact that others are inferior due to qualities such as race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background. An educator who consistently fails to call on people of color, for example, is guilty of a microinsult.
  • Microinvalidations: Microinvalidations negate the thoughts, feelings, or perceptions of an individual. This type of microaggression invalidates that person's experience. A comment such as, "Don't be so sensitive," nullifies the person's experience. A microinvalidation often addresses another type of microaggression and encourages the victim to let the initial microaggression go.

The Teachers College authors state that "almost all interracial encounters are prone to microaggressions," emphasizing how common these types of interactions are.

How microaggressions manifest

Microaggressions can manifest in several ways. While verbal microaggressions are the most obvious, it's important to understand that words aren't the only way messages are conveyed. To thoroughly address these insensitive actions in the workplace, you must recognize them in every form:

  • Verbal microaggressions: Insensitive words and phrases produce verbal microaggressions. Asking "Where are you really from?" is an example, as this comment indicates people of color are perceived as foreigners even when they're not.
  • Behavioral microaggressions: Acting differently around an individual because of factors such as race or gender conveys a behavioral microaggression. Refusing to make eye contact with a person of color or scheduling a meeting on a day of religious observance is a behavioral microaggression.
  • Environmental microaggressions: An environmental microaggression creates an unwelcoming or even hostile environment toward a person or group of people. Failure to promote women to leadership roles or setting up a meeting room that's not wheelchair-accessible are environmental microaggressions.

Examples of microaggressions

Thoroughly understanding the many forms microaggressions can take will help you identify them more easily, so you can take appropriate action with your own behavior and influence the behavior of co-workers. Some examples of microaggressions include:

  • A male colleague addressing a younger female co-worker as "young lady," which implies a sense of superiority based on gender.
  • Saying, "You can work later since you don't have kids, right?" implies that employees without children don't have other commitments, activities, and responsibilities outside the workplace.
  • Exclaiming, "That's crazy!" can demean people with genuine mental illnesses.
  • Expressing surprise that a person of color got into a good school or achieved a promotion.

The effect of microaggressions in the workplace

Microaggressions create an uncomfortable work environment and have a notable impact on employees who are victims of this type of behavior. Microaggressions can have a detrimental impact on physical and mental health. Individuals who deal with repeated microaggressions might suffer from:

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased stress
  • Higher rates of depression

Individuals who suffer from discrimination might engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drinking, smoking, or overeating. People who experience microaggressions are more likely to struggle with their mental health, suffer from anxiety, have a negative worldview, and have suicidal ideation.

Work performance is likely to decline among employees suffering from these types of physical and mental health problems. Employees who face microaggressions typically have lower job satisfaction and suffer from burnout much faster than other workers. 

How employers can minimize microaggressions

Companies must educate managers and employees on how to recognize, prevent, and respond to microaggressions. Every individual should be called upon to examine their own personal beliefs and actions. Educate employees on what microaggressions are and how they occur. Some microaggressions are commonly overlooked by individuals who don't fully understand the implications and impact of their comments. For example, saying, "You're really articulate!" might seem like a compliment, but this phrasing implies you didn't expect that person to speak well due to their race, socioeconomic background, or ethnicity. 

Companies should encourage open, honest discussion in the workplace so marginalized individuals feel safe to speak up about the microaggressions they're experiencing. In cases where these aggressions are unintentional, a calm and respectful conversation can help educate the unknowing perpetrator and put an end to thoughtless yet demeaning words and actions. 

Coach employees on how to alert others to their microaggressions and how to respond when accused of a microaggression. Perpetrators should acknowledge their mishap, apologize, and seek further understanding if necessary. When the victims of microaggressions are willing to help educate those around them, it empowers everyone to pursue a healthier and more considerate work environment.

Managers, leaders, and HR personnel have a responsibility to mindfully monitor the workplace for microaggressions. In many cases, the victim might not feel comfortable speaking up about the microaggression. In these instances, it's crucial for others to step in and correct individuals who have committed an offense. By actively addressing microaggressions in all forms, your leadership team can help create a culture of inclusivity and understanding, where microaggressions are instantly identified and simply aren't tolerated.

Properly handling microaggressions in the workplace can go a long way toward improving your work environment, boosting employee morale, increasing productivity, and fostering a dedicated workforce with minimal employee turnover. Eliminate these demeaning comments and actions from your workplace culture, and you're likely to see a noticeable impact among your employees.

More tips for managing microaggressions in the workplace and improving your work environment:

Understand affinity bias and how to avoid this subtle microaggression.

Hone your communication skills so you can confidently speak up when you need to.

Brush up on office etiquette to make sure you're not unintentionally offending co-workers with thoughtless behavior.

Build a stress management toolkit that will help build your resilience and protect your mental health.

Focus on improving your listening skills so you can really hear what others are telling you about your behavior.

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