DEI: How to Address Microaggressions in the Workplace

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Addressing and eliminating microaggressions should be part of your Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategy to ensure the improvement of company culture. Microaggressions are thinly veiled, everyday instances of racism, homophobia, or sexism. Often, they surface as small comments, gestures, or jokes that go unaddressed.

“Microagressions are defined as verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group,” according to Harvard Business Review.

What Are Examples of Microaggressions?

Asking an Asian American if they are good at math or if they were born in the United States because their English is so good are examples of microaggressions. Or another would be commenting that a black colleague was surprisingly articulate.

These statements don’t always come from a hurtful place. Sometimes they are molded by unconscious bias and ignorance of other people’s cultures. But if left unchecked, they spread like a virus.

In some instances, the perpetrators of these microaggressions do not even realize they are offending anyone. As a result, bringing up the subject can be awkward and uncomfortable. But it’s important to make your office a safe space, so people can be open about both their hurt feelings or their ignorance of the offensiveness of their comments. Most people want to do the right thing and make their colleagues feel comfortable. When framing the discussion as a teachable moment, you should put people at ease.

READ: Sustaining Your DEI Goals During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The History of Microaggressions

Companies have evolved since our grandparents entered the workforce. From the implementation of strict sexual harassment rules to the establishment of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), those promoting progressive policies have sought to make a better work culture and protect employees even in times of conflict.

Research has shown that these policies are effective, but many companies continue struggling with how employees interact with each other. It turns out that these more subtle slights are poisoning the well right under HR’s nose.

The term microaggression was first coined by psychiatrist Dr. Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s. While social scientists have been studying this concept for decades, people are now applying it to modern behaviors in the workplace.

Microaggressions are far more pervasive than situations of blatant harassment. Serious aggressions can often be solved through clear company policies and HR intervention. By now, most employees have been trained on how to identify them, whereas they can’t as easily detect microaggressions.

In many cases, these comments aren’t enough to raise red flags with HR, but the effects can compound until employees feel disrespected, undervalued, and discriminated against. The ultimate result is low morale, poor team performance, and a diminished company culture. Certainly, allowing microaggressions to fester will undercut your company’s DEI strategy.

How Microaggressions Hurt Your Company Culture

To start, you should consider the psychological and physical effects of this phenomenon. Minority employees, staff members with disabilities, and other under-represented groups are more likely to experience microaggressions, but they can happen to anyone.

Employees suffering from microaggressions feel inferior to their colleagues. Over time, they develop low self-esteem and physical exhaustion. Morale will drop as these employees avoid participating in new activities and lose motivation to work. This problem will spread as employees are less likely to trust one another. Microaggressions may not sound like a significant issue at first, but they’ll eventually affect your bottom line and your culture.

One 2015 study published by NCBI even found that microaggressions correlated with worse physical health. Participants from the American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) community who experienced microaggressions from healthcare workers self-reported higher rates of past heart attacks, depression, and prior hospitalizations.

What to Do About Microaggressions

Empathy and education are broad solutions to this issue but not always easily applied. The goal should be helping people to understand someone else’s perspective and educating them on how these seemingly trivial comments are, in fact, hurtful.

The Harvard Business Review recommends that employees follow these steps when responding to microaggressions:

1. Determine if the incident is worth addressing based on its severity and the recipient’s relationship with the perpetrator. At the same time, don’t discount their personal feelings and understand they need to worry about their professional perceptions.

2. Perpetrators and recipients should know that resolving a microaggression will involve an uncomfortable conversation. They should address the awkwardness of the words or deeds, and try to understand why it happened in the first place.

3. Recipients should ask perpetrators, “What did you mean by that?” This gives them a chance to clarify their intentions and opens the door for a meaningful dialogue.

4. Recipients get to decide how they want to proceed after a microaggression. Keep in mind that the comments can still be harmful, even if that wasn’t the intent. The important thing is for everyone is to keep learning from each other.

These scenarios aren’t easy for anyone but they are necessary to effect change. The best thing to do is to listen and maintain an open mind.

READ: How the Work Opportunity Tax Credit Fits into Your DEI Plan

Identifying the Signs of Microaggressions

Keep in mind that microaggressions can be focused on many different factors: race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, citizenship status, disability, gender, and more. The right strategy and educational programs can develop a better work culture.

As an HR professional, you can conduct climate surveys or have conversations with a broad swath of employees to understand office perceptions and whether anyone is feeling isolated as a result of microaggressions. Many companies and organizations are also being proactive by scheduling workshops or guest speakers to educate their staff on this issue.

Photo by Yan Krukov for Pexels

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