How to Deal with Microaggressions at Work
The culture of a company is a major contributor to the productivity of employees and the success of the organization. A positive company culture where diversity is celebrated can motivate and inspire employees while a non-inclusive culture can marginalize diverse individuals and groups. This can create a toxic environment where harassment, intimidation, and offensive behaviours go unchecked.
One contributor to a negative culture and working environment is microaggressions. The term “microaggression” describes subtle and ambiguous slights against others. Microaggressions can be based on race, class, gender, or sexuality. Since microaggressions are often very subtle, they can be difficult to detect. Some examples of common microaggressions include:
“Where are you from” or “You speak English very well”
May imply that the person is not American or is a foreigner
“You are a credit to your race”
Could indicate that people of colour are not as intelligent as white people
“I don’t see color” or “We’re all human”
A denial of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experiences
Microaggressions in the workplace create a hostile work environment and can cause depression, anger, and frustration in those affected. In the long term, this can lead to serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety. To be able to deal effectively with a microaggression, you first have to be able to assess the situation. Try not to react right away and take a few minutes to consider:
What’s the risk of confronting the behaviour?
Is this incident worth my time and effort?
What do I want to achieve?
If you do address the incident, the first step in dealing with a microaggression is to educate the other person. You want to help them understand your perspective and how their behaviour affected you. Try to focus on the behaviour and not the person. This will help keep the conversation solution-oriented and keep them from becoming defensive.
You can also use yourself as an example. Everyone makes mistakes and has learned lessons about equity and diversity. Provide an example of when you mis-stepped in the past and had to unlearn certain language or behaviours that were hurtful to others.
Most importantly, don’t excuse or brush off microaggressions. Particularly if they become a repetitive behaviour. If it’s happening to you, it’s likely happening to others as well. Workplaces should be a safe space for everyone and repetitive microaggressions should be reported to management. If you don’t trust your supervisor or direct manager, go to HR directly. There may even be someone at your company responsible for diversity initiatives. Reach out to that person if you feel targeted or unfairly treated.
While microaggressions are often very subtle, they are no less damaging than overt discrimination. If they go unaddressed, microaggressions can become more prevalent and create a biased and unequal workplace. Microaggressions need to be eliminated to create a workplace that is safe and welcoming for everyone.