Addressing Microaggression in the Workplace

photo showing microaggression

photo showing microaggressionAs important conversations about racism, equality, and equity take center stage due in part to the tragic death of George Floyd, now is a critical time to examine the progress we’ve made toward a diverse and inclusive workforce. While we’re slowly improving the degree of representation women and minorities have in senior leadership, there’s a long way to go. Despite an increased focus on Diversity & Inclusion initiatives within organizations and the implementation of policies forbidding harassment, we’ve failed to create a psychologically safe environment for a diverse workforce.

The subtle slights or verbal snubs experienced daily by marginalized groups  are often overlooked as innocent errors and not given the attention they need. These are called microaggressions and they come in many forms, both subtle and more overt. Here are a few common examples of this toxic workplace behavior:

  • Backhanded compliments such as “you’re very well-spoken.” When this is said to a minority, it implies that being articulate is a surprise.
  • Giving administrative tasks to someone that is beneath their role. Women and minorities are often underestimated for their skills and assigned the note-taker role during a brainstorm.
  • Being ignored.
  • Violating personal space.
  • Asking where someone is “really” from or telling them they don’t look “X.”
  • Continuously mispronouncing someone’s name.

Each of these seemingly small, brief slights are often dismissed as innocent mistakes by others. However, they are truly indignities that take an emotional toll on the target group, and they should never be tolerated.

It’s important to discuss microaggressions and microinvalidations directly and openly to uncover the unconscious biases that foster them. This can be particularly difficult, as people are often defensive of their own behaviors and are quick to dismiss them as miscommunication. Formal training on unconscious bias is often a great place to start, as it will provide a foundation of understanding across all employees. Acknowledging that the microaggression is both real and damaging can be a powerful way to spark more direct conversations about the behavior in the future.

Establishing a culture of “ally-ship” helps empower others to intervene when they identify microaggressive behaviors as well. This can help relieve the pressure on the victim to educate their aggressor, and also holds everyone accountable for the organizational values. Establishing an anti-racist and anti-sexist organization is everyone’s responsibility, and it doesn’t end with disciplining overt discrimination.