What are Microaggressions? Uncover & Respond Effectively

Two colleagues are engaged in a conversation at work.

In the shifting landscape of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), it's essential to keep exploring how our daily interactions either uphold or dismantle bias and inequality. Among the many topics related to this discussion is the concept of microaggressions; they are subtle slights rooted in stereotypes that often go unnoticed or dismissed, but they have a significant impact on our workplaces and personal lives. That’s not so micro now, is it?

With 7 in 10 employees saying they would be upset by a microaggression and half saying they would consider leaving their company if they experienced one, we need to proactively design a strategy for how we mitigate this behavior in the workplace. Let’s dive in!

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are not usually blatant acts of discrimination. Instead, they're the small expressions of bias and prejudice that pervade everyday interactions. They're the seemingly innocent comments or actions that, when scrutinized, reveal deeply embedded stereotypes and biases targeted at marginalized identities or communities - for example, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, religion, and more.

How Microaggressions Harm DEI

The harm that microaggressions can cause is substantial. While each instance might seem trivial, the cumulative effect on an individual is profound. They slowly chip away at the sense of belonging and trust, crucial elements for a thriving DEI environment. Microaggressions can prevent employees from fully engaging, stifle creativity, and ultimately hinder productivity and business growth.

Examples of Microaggressions at Work

Microaggressions can be complex to grasp without concrete examples. Let's examine seven scenarios that illustrate microaggressions at work:

Assumptions About Origin: A colleague asks a person of color, "Where are you really from?" implying that they're not truly part of their present country and insinuating they're an outsider.

Gender Bias: A female engineer consistently gets interrupted or talked over during team meetings, subtly reinforcing gender power dynamics and implying her ideas are less valuable.

Sexual Orientation Stereotypes: An employee uses phrases like "That's so gay" to label something as inferior or undesirable, perpetuating harmful stereotypes about the LGBTQ+ community.

Belittling Religious Practices: A coworker makes fun of another's dietary restrictions due to religious practices, dismissing and disrespecting their beliefs.

Disability Ignorance: A colleague tells a disabled coworker, "You don't look disabled," implying a narrow, stereotypical understanding of what disability looks like.

Ageism: A younger team member dismisses the ideas of an older colleague, claiming they're "outdated," reinforcing negative stereotypes about older adults.

Racial Bias: An employee casually says to an Asian coworker, "You must be good at math," reducing their individual skills and talents to a racial stereotype.

Each of these examples shows how subtle and often unintentional microaggressions can be. Yet, they have a profound negative impact, marginalizing and invalidating individuals and undermining the fabric of an inclusive workplace.

How Microaggressions Impact Our Well-Being

Microaggressions are more than an offense to our sensibilities; they affect our mental and physical health. They can lead to chronic stress, lower self-esteem, and feelings of isolation. Studies have linked the experience of regular microaggressions to higher levels of depression, anxiety, and even physical health problems like cardiovascular issues.

Microaggressions also breed a toxic work environment, reducing job satisfaction and promoting burnout. They undermine our well-being, and in a work setting, they disrupt harmony, inhibit cooperation, and erode productivity.

How to Respond to Microaggressions

Increased awareness of microaggressions is the first step to dealing with them effectively. Whether you're a bystander or recipient, the decision to respond can be challenging. However, there are some strategies that can help.

Choosing the Right Moment: Consider the context of the conversation and if it’s safe and productive to engage in a dialogue. An in-the-moment correction might work for minor incidents, like misusing pronouns, but bigger issues may require a private, one-on-one discussion. The goal is to 'call them in,' not 'call them out,' promoting an open dialogue rather than public shaming. Remember to express your feelings using 'I' statements to avoid sounding accusatory. For example, “I know you did not mean to [describe the impact, i.e., offend, hurt, disrespect] anyone when you said [reference the comment or statement]; however, let’s avoid this language in the future.”

Consider Your Relationship: Your approach might differ based on your relationship with the person who committed the microaggression. If you're close, a casual conversation might suffice, with a “Hey [colleague’s name], you made a comment earlier that did not land right with me…” For more distant colleagues, consider their personality and receptivity to feedback. In some instances, involving mutual friends or colleagues might be beneficial.

Acknowledge Your Understanding: Be honest about your understanding of the microaggression's subject. If you recognize a comment as offensive but don't fully grasp the implications, don't pretend to be an authority on the matter. Instead, open the dialogue, learn more, and involve those with deeper understanding if necessary.

Always emphasize the difference between intent and impact. Someone might not mean to offend, but the effect of their words can still be harmful. Using phrases like, "I understand your intention might have been X, but the impact felt like Y," can illuminate this gap and foster better understanding.

Remember, this isn't about winning an argument but educating and promoting understanding. Engage in open dialogue, ask probing questions to help the person recognize their bias, and offer a different perspective.

What if You Are the Microaggression Offender?

We’re all been here. What matters is how you respond to being called in or out. Here's an easy roadmap to guide you through this process and demonstrate emotional intelligence and care:

Pause and Reflect: It's natural to feel defensive when accused of causing offense. Calmly remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes, and this is an opportunity for growth. A deep breath and a moment of reflection can help you avoid an emotionally charged response.

Clarify: If you're unclear about what you said or did that was offensive, ask for more information. Encourage dialogue by saying, "Could you please explain what you mean by that?"

Listen Attentively: Truly listen to the other person's perspective, even if you initially disagree. Try to focus on understanding their viewpoint rather than formulating your response. Show you've understood by paraphrasing their comments: "What I'm hearing is [paraphrase their comments]. Is that correct?"

Genuinely Apologize: Once you understand the offense, acknowledge it and offer a sincere apology. Be candid about your shortcomings, whether it's a lack of knowledge or insensitivity, and commit to doing better. You can consider saying something like, "I now realize my mistake and the impact of [words or action]. I will commit to learning more about [cultural topic].”

Invite Future Conversations: Navigating these difficult exchanges may take more than one conversation for thorough understanding. Encourage future dialogues by saying, "I'm open to further discussions on this topic if you'd like to share more. I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. Thank you!"

Remember, the goal is not to eliminate disagreements but to foster understanding, growth, and a more inclusive environment.

Leaders Play a Key Role

A genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion necessitates a proactive stance against microaggressions. As these subtle behaviors can erode an inclusive work environment, leaders carry a significant responsibility to set clear expectations, model inclusive behaviors, and respond swiftly to microaggressions. If these behaviors go unaddressed, they may gradually become ingrained within the organization's culture.

Leaders can foster an empathetic culture where open dialogue is welcomed and mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities. By providing avenues for safe, open communication and introducing training programs that shed light on microaggressions, leaders can empower employees towards active allyship. Addressing microaggressions demands sustained effort from everyone and is a continuous journey integral to workplace well-being. It involves self-awareness, confronting biases, and promoting thoughtful communication, contributing to a culture that values intentional, respectful interactions. The process of nurturing such a work environment is continuous, involving learning, evolution, and growth, with leadership steering this crucial transformation.

If you’re interested in building diversity, equity, and inclusion at your workplace, let’s chat!

Ready to improve the employee experience and retain top talent?

Design for team success with Fortay!

Book a demo!