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How to Respond to Microaggressions at Work

There are a number of ways that employees can feel unhappy in the workplace. Dealing with micromanagement, annoying coworkers, and demanding customers can be enough to make even the best workplaces miserable.  If you’re a member of a marginalized group, you may also deal with microaggressions in the workplace on top of everything else. Moreso, […]

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Image Source: Unsplash
Image Source: Unsplash

There are a number of ways that employees can feel unhappy in the workplace. Dealing with micromanagement, annoying coworkers, and demanding customers can be enough to make even the best workplaces miserable. 

If you’re a member of a marginalized group, you may also deal with microaggressions in the workplace on top of everything else. Moreso, microaggressions can be difficult for others to recognize, which makes them even more challenging to address. And while they may not be considered harassment or discrimination, microaggressions contribute to a toxic work environment.

“Microaggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that minorities experience in their day to day interactions with well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in an offensive act or made an offensive statement,” Columbia professor Derald Wing recently told CNBC.

These acts and comments are typically related to a person’s race, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ethnicity, or disability status. But for someone who faces them daily, how can they be addressed?

Why Microaggressions Are So Harmful

While these incidents are often subtle, consistently having to respond to questions like, “What are you?” or being called “sweetheart” in a professional setting can have a huge impact on your performance and your confidence, especially if they continue over a long period of time. They can be challenging or uncomfortable to address, especially if you are the sole minority in your company. 

“Microaggressions are often likened to paper cuts,” Sarah Morgan, an HR Executive told Black Enterprise. “You’re not necessarily openly wounded but it still hurts. People who do not fit into the power groups (e.g., white, Christian, male, heterosexual, young, able-bodied) may experience microaggressions several times during their workday. Imagine going through life getting multiple paper cuts every single day for the 40+ years of your career. That’s the reality for many black people, women, and other people of color in the workplace.”

These kinds of daily interactions with coworkers can even cause long-term damage to one’s career, putting those in marginalized classes at an even further disadvantage when it comes to obtaining leadership roles and upward mobility. 

Microaggressions and Stigma 

Nearly 20 percent of American adults have a diagnosed mental health condition, and many are afraid to share their condition with their employers due to the stigma surrounding mental illness in the larger United States. As a result, a number of individuals are hesitant to make necessary doctor appointments so as to not make their employees and coworkers feel that they are working less hard than their peers. 

Additionally, those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness may have to deal with comments at work that further stigmatize their illness, such as “Did you forget to take your meds today?” or just overhearing chatter in a meeting about a “crazy” client. 

Similarly, conversations about politics can be incredibly damaging to a person’s psyche if overheard in the workplace. Conversations about the viability of Medicare and Medicaid for underserved communities, food stamps/welfare, or even LGBTQ+ issues can all cause duress in the day-to-day lives of marginalized individuals — and this doesn’t even begin to cover the negative effects of a company that doesn’t offer help for their employees in these groups, such as by providing health coverage, maintaining ADA-compliant workplaces, or offering LGBTQ+ resources for older employees.

These comments, while not always intended to hurt, still add to the stigma that many of these people experience on a day-to-day basis in and out of the workplace, and can make them feel more alienated and excluded.

Microaggressions, Opportunity, and Company Culture

Another problem that exists is the lack of opportunity in the workplace. Even though Black people comprise about 12% of the population, only 3% of senior-level executive positions are held by Black people, and less than 1% filled Fortune 500 CEO positions. This causes a lot of Black professionals to leave their jobs in frustration, and also ensures that the culture of these organizations is largely white, meaning that lower level Black employees will likely have to deal with microaggressions on a daily basis. In some cases, these daily transgressions may even prove so difficult to deal with that talented Black and minority employees choose to leave their job or the profession entirely. 

In fact, Fast Company recently reported that, “In a study of over 1,000 U.S. adults… respondents reported that a lack of emotional safety at work would make them quit a job immediately. Company culture often starts at the top and gets reinforced by managers, so it’s not hard to see how a toxic culture could breed an environment of harassment, intimidation, and generally offensive behavior.”

Microaggressions and Productivity

Just because microaggressions can be viewed as vague doesn’t mean there aren’t real consequences to productivity. After all, when people feel excluded, they’re less likely to contribute to the team overall. When employees avoid communicating or working with others, either because of bias or not wanting to deal with biased behavior towards them, productivity will obviously take a hit.

“Who does their best work when they’re ignored, embarrassed, not listened to, made fun of, or one way or another treated differently in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable in their team or in their group?” Stephen M. Paskoff, the CEO of an Atlanta-based training company tells Fast Company.

While microaggressions are not illegal or blatant in their discriminatory nature, they are alienating and can cause real rifts in company culture, happiness, and productivity. 

Putting a Stop to Microaggressions in the Workplace

Even though microaggressions can be difficult to recognize and address, there are ways to combat them. 

Perhaps the most necessary course of action is to actively educate oneself and one’s employees or coworkers about what exactly microaggressions are, and how to effectively recognize and eradicate biases. This can be done through university courses, private firms, sensitivity workshops, training exercises, and more. Further, simply hiring a more diverse staff can help to steer away from a majority-centric workforce, lessening the natural “othering” that can happen to those that belong to minority groups.

There are also places that businesses and corporations can turn to in order to develop an all-inclusive attitude at work. The Institute for Equity and Inclusion Sciences and The Civility Institute, for example, are excellent resources businesses can utilize to educate their staff. 

If your business has a tight budget, all is not lost, either. The Society for Diversity or Harvard University’s “Project Implicit” program is a budget-friendly resource that businesses can use as a starting point. 

Even if you’re an individual not subject to microaggressions, you can still help. Educate yourself on common derogatory terms or negative messages you may be sending out and what those messages really mean — and don’t think microaggressions only happen based on race or sexual/gender identity, as the disabled community is also a target. If you are a victim of these messages, make the invisible visible so people are aware of what they are doing. Do not guess the intent of their words, but instead, point out why such comments are hurtful.

Microaggressions may be unintentional, but that doesn’t mean they don’t cause real harm in the workplace. It’s up to businesses and individuals to address their own biases, educate themselves about people who are different than they are, and be open to honest critique.

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