Microaggressions: How To Handle It In The Workplace

Discrimination in the workplace isn’t always overt or obvious. Sometimes, people are discriminated against more subtly, like an unfair joke or comment about their appearance. This type of discrimination, known as a microaggression, often goes over people’s heads, but it really shouldn’t. Microaggressions harm the victim’s mental health and ruin their self-esteem. Microaggressions are usually unintentional, but they cause harm nonetheless. As a business owner or manager, it’s your job to teach your employees how to recognize and avoid committing microaggressions. 

What is a microaggression?

Microaggressions are actions or behaviors in the workplace that unintentionally cause harm to members of marginalized communities. They’re called ‘microaggressions’ since their individual impacts are small. But, the cumulative effect of microaggressions is large and measurable as ‘microaggressions’. Since modern people spend most of their lifetimes at work, microaggressions impact their professional lives and mental health. In extreme cases, microaggressions even damage the victim’s physical health. Deep-rooted unconscious biases against marginalized communities cause microaggressions at work. Often, the people who commit microaggressions are not aware of the damage they’re causing. They have to be informed that they’re guilty of committing microaggressions and taught how to avoid them.

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How common are workplace microaggressions?

Unfortunately, workplace microaggressions are highly prevalent in American workplaces. We can assume the same is true for workplaces in most other countries. Many workplace studies and researches have concluded that microaggressions in the workplace are often routine and normalized to the point that victims don’t realize they’re being discriminated against. 

For example, one study found that women suffer significantly more microaggressions in the workplace than men do. The six most prevalent microaggressions against women were often several magnitudes more likely to happen to women than men, especially women of minority ethnic and sexual identities. For example, 36% of women’s judgment was questioned in their area of expertise versus only 27% of men. 40% of black women report having their judgment question, and 37% of lesbians reported their judgments being questioned.

Another study revealed that 64% of women reported daily microaggressions as workplace reality. On average, women are forced to provide greater evidence to demonstrate competence than men. Women are also x2 likelier to be misidentified for someone in a more junior position than their male colleagues. 

Damages caused by microaggressions

Suffering from daily workplace microaggressions causes numerous mental health issues for employees. Employees could suffer from any of the following conditions:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Imposter syndrome 
  • Low workplace satisfaction 
  • Declining morale 
  • Traumatic stress
  • Suicidal ideation. 

Microaggressions in the workplace can even impact employees after they’ve left their workplace. An individual might be less likely to apply to new jobs for fear of rejection or differential treatment because of their name or ethnicity. The result is decreased talent and declining employee productivity for companies. 

Workplace engagement is likely to decline because of microaggressions. Employees that frequently suffer from microaggressions may become less willing to speak during meetings or actively participate in the company. They could also lose motivation and struggle to maintain their sense of purpose in your organization. For this reason, appropriately responding to microaggressions is vital for a company to maintain morale. 

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Type of workplace microaggressions

There are multiple microaggression types. The most common ones are :

  1. Microassaults 
  2. Microinsults 
  3. Microinvalidations 

Each microaggression type causes different damage to the victim. Some microaggression types can cause significantly greater damage than others to specific people. 

  1. Microassaults

Microassaults consist of intentional overt discrimination against a marginalized group. Common microassaults include putting-down someone, belittling them, or bullying them. A specific example of a microassault could be carving a racial epithet into a wall or posting historically offensive symbols and flags, like the American Confederate flag or Swastikas. Microassaults also include slurs against people because of their religion or sexuality. Microassaults actively cause damage to peoples’ self-esteem because of their overt nature. Micro assaults are easy to detect, but they’re often considered harmless jokes in a workplace.

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  1. Microinsults

A microinsult is when a marginalized community member receives a compliment that secretly insults their demographic group. The most common microinsult is to contrast the victim positively against a negative stereotype associated with their demographic. Microinsults are disguised as compliments, and they may be genuine from the person providing them. Yet, they are a microaggression because they reinforce the stereotypical image of the victim’s demographic. Microinsults imply that the victim’s demographic is a negative entity, with the victim’s positive attributes being an exception to the norm. An example of a microaggression is judging female business leaders as ‘harsh’ for speaking with authority. Another type of microinsult is when a professional is favored or discriminated against for choosing an occupation not traditionally associated with their demographic. For example, a female fighter pilot or a male nurse. 

  1. Microinvalidations

Microinvalidations are behaviors or words that invalidate the experiences and opinions of others because of their background. Most often, microinvalidations are expressed against members of historically disadvantaged groups. The target will typically be dismissed, discredited, and even be laughed at because of their divergent experiences and opinions. A specific example of a microinvalidation would be for an ethnic majority person to say ‘I don’t see color’ to a colleague from a minority ethnic background who’s complaining of workplace racism. This action is a microinvalidation because it denies that an ethnic minority may have different experiences from the ethnic majority. Microinvalidations are harmful since they delegitimize minority concerns. 

Different forms of microaggression

Microaggressions occur in different forms: 

  1. Verbal 

Verbal microaggressions involve comments or questions about minority members that hurt their self-respect or identity. An example of a verbal microaggression would be saying, “You’re so smart for a woman.”. This phrase is a clear microinsult. 

  1. Behavioral

Behavioral microaggression consists of non-verbal actions that imply certain people are inferior. An example of a behavioral microaggression would be a bartender serving a cis-person before serving a trans-person, despite waiting longer. This action is a microaggression because it involves treating the trans-person unfairly compared to the cis-person. 

  1. Environmental

Environmental microaggressions involve subtle discrimination against minorities. An example of an environmental microaggression is naming college campus buildings after members of the ethnic majority, despite no lack of relevant minority figures.

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Examples of workplace microaggression:

Microaggressions in the workplace are common. In any workplace, you’ll find people discriminated against for their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other demographies. For example, a 2018 Kansas State University study found that 73% of women in STEM fields were sexually objectified at least once. 

Other common examples of microaggressions include: 

  • Treating someone as an inferior citizen because of their background. 
  • Offering backhanded compliments to people born outside the U.S. for their English language fluency. 
  • Telling underweight people to eat more
  • Making assumptions about people because of their age or religion. 
  • Refusing to use a trans-person’s preferred pronouns.
  • Underrepresenting people of different demographic backgrounds in the media. 
  • Refusing to accept stereotypical or derogatory sports teams’ names as problematic.
  • Using insults that involve accusing an individual from one group of stereotypically acting like a different group’s member. 
  • Assigning value to people based on their demographic origin. 

How to combat workplace microaggressions?

Businesses need to prevent workplace microaggressions to maximize employee satisfaction and productivity. Refusing to prevent microaggressions in the workplace damages employee morale and mental health and harms organizational efficiency. Thankfully, there are several ways to combat workplace microaggressions actively. 

  1. Promote Actionable Awareness

Most microaggressions are not intentional. Instead, microaggressions result from either ignorance or subconscious biases. As such, organizations need to proactively raise awareness of microaggressions and inform employees of the microaggressions they commit. Your organization should actively provide employees with workplace instruction on what actions constitute workplace microaggression. They should also know why to avoid it.

It’s also important to consult employees who suffer from microaggressions about their experiences and empower them to bring attention to their problems. Educating employees about microaggressions is necessarily a communal effort that will involve your entire company to be effective. 

  1. Facilitate Respectful Dialogue

Microaggressions are an emotional matter that requires the sensitivity to resolve. When bringing up microaggressions with your employees, approach the subject respectfully. Remember, your job is only to facilitate conservation among your employees, not to teach how to think. 

There are several ways of appropriately treating microaggressions. For example, don’t single out any demographic. Conversations about microaggressions should be broad and cover all. Encourage all demographics to discuss microaggressions, but don’t create an ‘us versus them dichotomy. 

Also, don’t direct attention towards any specific individuals as that would cause workplace tensions. You want to generalize behavior and not avoid blaming any person or group. 

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  1. Enforce Consistent Consequences

It’s not enough to educate employees about microaggressions; you also have to penalize anyone that commits them. Ideally, you should have a safe and progressive workspace free of discrimination. 

Failure to correct microaggressions is tacit acceptance of the bad behavior. Employees who frequently commit microaggressions need to know that their behavior is unacceptable. Consistency will ensure your organization has a safe and progressive work environment. You should follow this process every time:

  1. Identify microaggression 
  2. Apply penalties 
  3. Evaluate results 
  4. Apply lessons and repeat

For example, if a male employee refers to a female manager as “bossy” for being assertive, HR should immediately explain why such language is inappropriate. HR must then examine the employee’s subsequent behavior with female managers and conclude whether his behavior has improved. If it hasn’t, you require to take additional action. 

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In conclusion, microaggressions are harmful to workplace productivity and employee mental health. Microaggressions consist of actions or words that often unintentionally cause harm to others. Repeated microaggressions damage workplace morale, so businesses should learn to prevent microaggressions by fostering a healthy and constructive work environment. 

Learn how Engagedly can help you manage your employees better by requesting a demo from our experts. 

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