Over the last decade, we've been having more and more conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) in the workplace. An unarguably good thing. But those conversations didn't just materialize out of nowhere. They were a direct response to a severe lack of workplace diversity and inclusion and direct and indirect acts of discrimination and bias.
There's, unfortunately, no amount of talk about DEIB that can move the needle permanently. In 2019, Glassdoor conducted a DEIB study of 1,100 employees and found that 61% have witnessed or experienced workplace discrimination based on age, race, gender, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation.
Not all those experiences were blatant acts of racism and discrimination. Many were "microaggressions" — verbal or physical acts of discrimination done in typically unconscious ways.
What is a microaggression?
There are a lot of definitions for microaggressions out there, but this one stands out:
Microaggressions are brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to marginalized individuals and groups. The "micro in microaggression refers to person-to-person interactions, while "macro" refers to systemic racism. Racial microaggressions negatively impact employees' job satisfaction, self-esteem, and mental and physical health.
Microaggressions can play out in many ways. For example, touching a Black person's hair or saying, "That's so gay." To the person doing them, they may seem harmless at face value. But those actions and statements can be seen as threatening or demeaning to the other person. It doesn't matter whether or not there was any harmful intent.
There are a variety of different dimensions to microaggressions:
- Microassaults — Acts that are knowingly racist or discriminatory. The best example of this is someone intentionally making a joke at the expense of a minority group and then attempting to brush it off or justify it as "harmless" or "it's just a joke." Another example is purposely ignoring or not engaging with a colleague because of that person's race, sexual orientation, religion, and even gender.
- Microinsults — Conscious or unconscious verbal and non-verbal insensitive behaviors. An example of this is asking a new employee aged 55+ how they got their job — with the subtext potentially being, "How did you get your job when there are so many other qualified younger candidates out there?" Whether this was the intent or not is beside the point; if it caused that employee to double-take when asked that question, the implied meaning rang loud and clear.
- Microinvalidations — Forms of communication that seek to ignore or overlook the presence of a minority colleague. The harm with these is that the offenders of microinvalidations often deny their discriminatory tendencies, rejecting any criticism that they're racist, sexist, ageist, or homophobic. This is a perfect case of unconscious bias in action; while the person doesn't see themselves as discriminatory, their actions say otherwise.
Whatever the form of microaggression may be, it poses a real threat to an employee's success and happiness within a company. Constantly justifying "why you belong" or your value on a team because you might be a little different from your team's cookie-cutter mold is unfair and exhausting.
And so many people are unaware of microaggression because "that's never happened to me before," living blissfully unaware of their privilege.
But that doesn't mean they can't change or be an ally to those who need your support.
How to call out microaggressions at work – Identify with a question
To fight against microaggression, it's essential that you speak up when you feel that someone has crossed a line.
Speaking up isn't easy whether a person directs the microaggression at you or a colleague. Keep your cool with an easy, "What did you mean by that?" Simply calling it out — and in front of your other colleagues — can help clarify that an act was inappropriate or offensive.
By responding to these acts with a question, you engage the person, who again may not even realize what they've done, in a conversation that helps them see why their words or actions were offensive. It gives you (or your ally) an opportunity to help that person understand why their actions were harmful.
It also gives that person an opportunity to own up, apologize, and clear the air on the spot. That's the best-case scenario, and it tends to work well with people who want to do right and be better.
How to call out microaggressions at work – Pushing through pushback
Now, there's always a chance that you'll get pushback. The person may call you "overly sensitive" or say, "You can't take a joke." They're, of course, wrong. And this is when allies can step in and support their colleague. Because the more the offending person can see how their actions have created a hostile atmosphere, the more likely they'll become mindful of their words and actions down the road — hopefully.
If that doesn't work, you can't be afraid to escalate the issue to HR. After all, the longer you let certain behaviors persist, they will become more acceptable and tolerated.
How to call out microaggressions at work – Organizational change
There's a lot your organization can do at a macro-level to confront microaggressions. Here are three places to start.
1) Build a company culture around diversity and inclusion
This doesn't mean just talking about it more. It's about treating people equally and not tolerating anything less.
It means putting real and meaningful change into action. It means having a more diverse recruiting and hiring strategy. It means checking unconscious bias at the door (or putting in the hard work and training to help employees learn how to do that).
It also means embracing inclusion at all levels of the company and hiring leaders and managers that mirror the people they manage. It's about giving people visibility and creating a safe space where everyone can do their job without fear.
2) Make diversity and sensitivity training mandatory and ongoing
When your organization implements training and learning programs that help employees on this journey, it can progress toward overcoming unconscious bias.
It's not a "one and done" type of thing but rather a continuous learning process. Many companies today require their employees to take mandatory sensitivity training, and then once they've checked the box, it's done.
Like going to the gym, learning to overcome unconscious bias and microaggressions is a muscle you need to train. One course isn't going to drive the kind of change you seek or do very much to shift the behaviors of the biggest offenders in your organization. This must be an ongoing process that helps employees examine and overcome all dimensions of racism and discrimination.
3) Don't be afraid to have tough conversations
Change doesn't happen by being quiet. If you want to foster a more diverse, inclusive, and non-aggressive workplace, you need to create a space where all voices can be heard (for good and bad).
Engage employees in open forums to discuss the issues and challenges that minority groups regularly face. Invite them to provide insights and feedback into how you, as leaders, can implement positive change for the future. The big takeaway here is that it shouldn't just be about talking but also about taking action.
Listen to your employees. Then take that feedback to create a safe, happier and more productive workplace. Your employees are your greatest asset; let them be the fuel that empowers you to make positive and lasting change.
More ways to confront and reduce microaggression in your workplace
We all have opportunities to grow and improve. No one and no company is perfect. In the spirit of doing better, here are some additional resources to help you (or someone you know) continue to learn, grow and improve the DEIB in your workplace.
- HR Labs season 3 — each episode features in-depth discussions on issues of DEI&B
- Episode 3.2 of HR Labs — explores Microaggressions in the workplace with Dr. Ella Washington
- Cornerstone Cares — free courses on how to recognize and mitigate unconscious bias
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