- Microaggressions refer to the less-obvious, subtle references to stereotypes based on a person’s identity or background.
- Microaggressions make light of communities in a way that may seem innocent or light-hearted, but can negatively impact a person’s mental wellbeing, as well as their relationship to the workplace.
- Leaders have a responsibility to shed their preconceived notions of what workplace discrimination can look like, and take concrete steps to remedy it.
Discrimination in the workplace has always been abhorrent, but it remains a common obstacle that minorities face.
Outright racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and other forms of prejudice in the workplace are typically easy to target and address accordingly.
Research from Glassdoor finds that 61% of employees have witnessed or personally experienced discrimination at work. But what happens when bigotry is more subtle? These instances are called microaggressions.
What is a microaggression?
Microaggressions refer to the less-obvious, subtle references to stereotypes based on a person’s identity or background.
While not as flagrant a practice of discrimination, it can still have detrimental impacts on the wellbeing of workers from minority groups.
Oftentimes, microaggressions make light of communities in a way that may seem innocent or light-hearted, but can negatively impact a person’s mental wellbeing, as well as their relationship to the workplace.
However, microaggressions can also come in even less-obvious forms.
Lack of career advancement opportunities, stagnant pay and general feelings of inequality at work can also indicate that microaggressions have already permeated a company’s cultural foundation.
For instance, research from global think tank Coqual finds that Black professionals in the U.K. experience 13 microaggressions more than their white and Asian counterparts.
These aren’t just rare occasions either — Coqual’s study shows that Black professionals often have to anticipate dealing with microaggressions on a daily basis. With time, this inevitably can wear down a worker’s overall wellbeing.
“While many companies are having more conversations about race at work, they are not leading to much action — which can be incredibly dispiriting. In our study, we provide a framework for action,” said Julia Taylor Kennedy, executive vice president at Coqual in a press release about the research.
Understanding and tackling microaggressions
In order to truly address the burden that microaggressions can leave on employees from minority communities, leaders have a responsibility to shed their preconceived notions of what workplace discrimination can look like.
To start, leaders should take the following steps to create a more equitable workplace.
Assess the situation
Listening to employees is key whenever there is workplace conflict.
If a worker approaches their manager with complaints about experiencing any type of discrimination, whether macro or micro, it is then the job of a leader to seek out as much information as they can gather about the situation.
Challenge your views
Experiencing prejudice is not a black and white issue. It’s complex and filled with nuance, which can be particularly difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced discrimination.
For leaders, when approached with this type of obstacle, it’s critical to take a step back and reevaluate what words could hurt an employee from a marginalized community.
Talk about it
This may be challenging, but creating an open line of communication between managers and employees can make a significant impact on how microaggressions are tackled at work.
If one worker is feeling uncomfortable due to workplace prejudice, they may not feel like it is a safe space to be open about their concerns.
In order to avoid this, employers must always encourage their staff to come forward whenever they see or are victim of microaggressions.
From there, leaders can talk to the perpetrator of these statements, help explain why their words or actions are distressing for their colleague, and hopefully mend any broken workplace relationships.
Take the time to learn
Microaggressions fall on a spectrum. Some are well-intended but misguided, while others come from a person’s upbringing that they may not realize is painful for a community.
For instance: An employee born to South Asian parents might face skepticism when they tell someone they were born in Tennessee.
Oftentimes, there is an assumption that people of color are not “from” the U.S. and instead are posed with the question, “Where are you really from?”
This is a type of microaggression that not only ignores and invalidates what the employee has already said, but it also attempts to erase and challenge their identity.
Although most times microaggressions are not meant to offend, it’s important for managers to have policies in place that create a welcoming environment to all employees and supports workers from neglected communities.