3 min read

Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions in the Workplace

Unfortunately, good things don’t always come in small packages. If you’re not already familiar with the relatively recent buzzword, microaggressions, it’s a topic worth discussing, particularly as it applies to the workplace.
Microaggressions are subtle, often unconscious behaviors or comments that can make individuals feel marginalized, discriminated against, or invalidated. They communicate hostile or derogatory messages to people based on their membership in a marginalized group. They can be related to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or other aspects of identity.

These actions can be verbal or nonverbal, and they can range from subtle snubs or dismissals to more obvious forms of discrimination. Microaggressions can be harmful, even if the person who commits them didn't intend any harm, because they reinforce stereotypes and contribute to a toxic work environment, eroding the sense of belonging and self-esteem of marginalized individuals. 

As society works towards addressing systemic discrimination and promoting greater inclusivity, it’s incumbent upon organizations to keep pace and recognize the impact of these behaviours and comments within their own work environment.

Types of Microaggressions in the Workplace

Here are some examples of the types of microaggressions that can occur in the workplace:

Microinsults: These are subtle comments or behaviors that communicate disrespect, invalidation, or negative assumptions about a person's identity. For example, assuming that a woman is less competent than a man or making fun of someone's accent.

Microassaults: These are overt actions or comments that are intentionally hostile or derogatory toward a person or group. For example, using racial slurs or making sexist jokes.

Microinvalidations: These are behaviors or comments that negate or dismiss a person's identity or experiences. For example, telling someone to "stop being so sensitive" when they express their feelings about a microaggression.

Microaggressions based on identity: These are microaggressions that occur based on a person's identity. For example, assuming that someone is heterosexual or assuming that someone is not a native English speaker based on their race.

While these behaviors may seem minor, microaggressions can have a significant impact on the well-being of those who experience them, particularly in the workplace, where employee health and mental wellness, productivity, and morale is at stake.

Effects of Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions can have several negative effects on individuals and organizations. These include:

  1. Decreased productivity: Employees who experience microaggressions may become distracted, disengaged, or demotivated. This can lead to decreased productivity and performance.

  2. Decreased well-being: Microaggressions can lead to stress, anxiety, and feelings of isolation or inadequacy. These negative emotions can impact an employee's well-being, both in and out of the workplace.

  3. Increased turnover: Employees who experience microaggressions may choose to leave their job or the organization altogether. This can result in increased turnover, which can obviously be costly and disruptive for organizations.

  4. Decreased diversity and inclusion: Microaggressions can create an unwelcoming environment for individuals from diverse backgrounds. This can lead to a lack of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, which can impact innovation, creativity, and overall success.

The obvious question then becomes, how to handle microaggressions and mitigate the damage they can do?

How Employers Can Address Microaggressions in the Workplace

Addressing microaggressions in the workplace is essential for creating a welcoming, inclusive, and productive environment. Here are some ways for organizations to tackle the issue:

  1. Education and training: Educating employees about microaggressions, their effects, and how to prevent them can be a useful first step. 

  2. Policies and procedures: Establishing policies and procedures that outline what constitutes a microaggression and how to report one can be helpful. This can include creating a safe reporting mechanism and providing support to employees who report microaggressions.

  3. Accountability: Holding individuals accountable for their actions or comments can help prevent microaggressions from occurring. This can include implementing consequences for individuals who engage in microaggressive behaviors.

  4. Diversity and inclusion initiatives: Employers should regularly evaluate their workplace culture and practices to ensure they are promoting inclusivity and respect for all employees. Doing so results in a more accepting, welcoming work environment for everyone. 

How Employees Can Address Microaggressions in the Workplace

Having the support and a robust framework from your employer to address microaggressions empowers you as an employee to do the same. If you encounter microaggressions at work, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Start by understanding what microaggressions are. (Hint, see above).

  2. Speak up: If you experience a microaggression or witness one, speak up in a respectful manner. You can say something like, "I don't think that comment is appropriate" or "That remark makes me uncomfortable."

  3. Educate: Take the opportunity to educate the person who made the microaggression about why it's hurtful and how it can contribute to a hostile work environment. You can also offer resources or recommend training sessions to help them understand the impact of their behavior.

  4. Document: Keep a record of any microaggressions you experience or witness. This can be helpful if you need to report the behavior to HR or management.

  5. Seek support: If you feel overwhelmed or unsupported, seek support from colleagues, mentors, or HR. It's important to take care of your mental health and well-being.

  6. Advocate for change: If you notice a pattern of microaggressions in your workplace, advocate for change. You can bring it up in team meetings, suggest training or workshops, or work with HR to develop a plan to address the issue.

Remember, addressing microaggressions in the workplace is an ongoing process. It requires a commitment to creating a culture of respect, inclusivity, and empathy.

Get to know the author – Sheldon Kennedy



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