Microaggressions refer to the everyday, often unintentional, discriminatory actions or comments that undermine individuals based on their race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The term, created by psychiatrist Dr. Chester M. Pierce in 1969, identifies the unconscious bias some people have towards others.
Microaggressions may seem harmless and easy to ignore, but over time can cause emotional damage to a person and community, especially within a workplace.
There is a myriad of microaggressions that can occur in the workplace. “A microaggression doesn’t have to be something ill-intentioned: a person you work with can do or say something that degrades you, even if they did not intend it to come off that way,” note employment lawyers at Aegis Law Firm, “microaggression can be caused by a superior, such as a supervisor or employer, or by a coworker.”
A microaggression can be committed by anyone, regardless of rank, in the workplace. Common types of microaggressions include:
Subtle comments or questions that target an individual’s identity. Asking someone about their racial background in a way that implies they don’t belong at the workplace or saying you are surprised by someone’s sexual orientation are examples of verbal microaggressions.
Microassaults are intentional acts of discrimination, often disguised as jokes or derogatory comments. Microassaults are often racial slurs or sexist remarks.
These are subtler forms of discrimination. Diminishing someone’s abilities or experiences based on their identity are examples of microinsults. For instance, suggesting that a woman’s success is solely due to nepotism.
Microinvalidations aim to invalidate a person’s experiences or feelings. For example, telling someone they are “too sensitive” when they express discomfort about something.
Microaggressions can take various forms in the workplace, often affecting employees and the overall work environment. Below are common examples of microaggressions in the workplace:
- Racial Microaggressions: Employees of color may encounter questions like, “Where are you really from?” or being assumed to be a lower-level employee.
- Gender Microaggressions: Women may face comments that belittle their contributions, such as being interrupted during meetings. Women may also face being called “emotional” when they express any type of passionate emotion, such as frustration or disappointment.
- LGBTQ+ Microaggressions: Employees who identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community may hear derogatory slurs or jokes about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Age Microaggressions: Older employees may be subjected to stereotypes like being “resistant to change” or struggling with technology.
- Disability Microaggressions: People with disabilities might experience microaggressions if their colleagues assume they are incapable of certain tasks or suggest they need certain accommodations.
Microaggressions can have serious consequences for people and businesses alike. For people, microaggressions can create feelings of isolation, low self-esteem and increased stress. Repeated microaggressions can contribute to burnout and a hostile work environment over time; these consequences can then further prompt employees to leave their jobs. In fact, some believe microaggressions partly contributed to the great resignation of 2021.
Effects of microaggressions can also be serious for businesses. Microaggressions can contribute to low employee morale, lower productivity and higher employee turnover rates. Businesses that tolerate microaggressions risk a bad reputation and may face legal consequences for failing to provide a safe and inclusive workplace.
Addressing microaggressions requires a proactive approach:
- Education and Awareness: Raising awareness about microaggressions through training programs and workshops. Businesses can encourage employees to reflect on their own biases and behaviors.
- Promote Inclusivity: Foster a culture of inclusivity where differences are celebrated, not denigrated. Create safe spaces for employees to discuss their concerns.
- Reporting Mechanisms: Establish reporting protocol for employees to report incidents of microaggressions. Ensure that these reports are taken seriously and lead to appropriate actions.
- Accountability: Hold individuals accountable for their actions. Consequences for engaging in microaggressive behavior should be clearly defined and enforced.
- Continued Improvement: Regularly evaluate and update your organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Listen to feedback from employees and make necessary adjustments.
Microaggressions in the workplace are subtle yet pervasive forms of discrimination. Recognizing and addressing microaggressions is essential for creating a more inclusive and equitable work environment where all employees can thrive. Whether you have been a victim of a microaggression or not, everyone deserves to work in a place that feels safe.