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Preserve Your Workplace Culture and Address Microaggressions

Microaggressions erode workplace inclusivity, but they can be difficult to eradicate. Here are a few common examples and some ways to address them immediately.

A microaggression is a sly, subtle creature. It lurks about the office, appears briefly, then scuttles back into the shadows. When you’re the target of a microaggression, you may think you just imagined it, but you’re left feeling unfairly treated.

Microaggressions come in many shapes and sizes. From misogynistic banter to racial biases to passive-aggressive comments disguised as compliments, they’re surprisingly common, and they make up part of the workplace discrimination that is witnessed or experienced by 61% of U.S. employees.

Microaggressions are particularly challenging to address because they often originate in seemingly innocent ways by people who don’t intend to be offensive. However, well-meaning employees might very well end up driving colleagues away and damaging their company because of unconscious biases.

Microaggressions, if left to fester, will decrease a company’s chances of achieving workplace diversity. They chip away at corporate cultures until their foundations are no longer supportive. If you’re not practicing inclusivity, you will inadvertently turn candidates away to seek other, more welcoming environments.

Every new hire hopes to see him or herself reflected in the makeup of your company. This starts with employing team members of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, and it extends to inclusive language that affirms their identities. When companies are genuinely diverse, they become stronger and more innovative.

How to Stop Microaggressions in Your Company

If you want to help stop microaggressions, it’s crucial to understand how these behaviors manifest. Here are three you might encounter and some ways to address them:

1. The Offhand Judgement

This is a classic microaggression that stems from ignorance. It manifests in situations where people assume things based on another person’s appearance, characteristics, or personality. For example, a white business leader may presume the new Latino hire wasn’t born in the U.S. and ask, “Where are you from?”

This form of microaggression should be dealt with both individually and on a companywide scale. To recognize the impact and implications of their words, team members need to actively assess their biases through regular discussion and training. If you’re on the receiving end of this prejudice, you could discreetly ask a trusted colleague to educate the microaggressor on your behalf.

2. The Subtle Override

Throughout my 15-year career in advertising, I’ve been on the receiving end of microaggressions that have insidiously called into question my credibility. I once introduced myself to a pitch consultant as the executive creative director, and he responded, “You don’t look like a creative director.” As an Asian American woman, I’m used to evoking surprise in the boardroom. However, comments like this are patronizing. 

If you notice the person on the receiving end of a comment like this is struggling to respond, you could step in and reassert the individual’s value. In this instance, you could say, “I hope that’s not the case. After all, she’s been with our company for X years.” As the recipient, you could use the moment to spotlight an inclusion problem. Try saying, “You’re right. I hope there’ll be more creative directors who look like me in the near future.”

3. The Backhanded Compliment

Even compliments can be prime territory for microaggressions. For example, someone might say, “Your English is great!” This is probably well-intended, but it can be belittling and damaging to our sense of self at work. Backhanded compliments imply there’s something wrong or lacking with someone’s identity.

If you receive a backhanded compliment at work, try responding with confidence. Bring attention to the other person’s bias. In the example above, you could reply, “Thanks. I’d hope so because I was born here.” This underlines the individual’s misconception and decreases the chance he or she will make a similar mistake. If you’re in a leadership position and an employee approaches you about someone else’s repeat “compliments,” you’ll need to have more extensive discussions about inclusive language and unconscious biases.

If you’re currently experiencing microaggressions at work, stay strong. Don’t let anyone downplay these sneaky forms of discrimination. They’re real, and they’re harmful. By remaining on alert for microaggressions and addressing them immediately on a case-by-case basis, we can make our workplaces more inclusive for future hires.

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