“Oh! that’s not what I really meant.”
“It was just a joke.”
These are a few of the many remarks that folks from marginalized communities have to listen to almost every day at the workplace. A person of color born in the US often has to hear “Where are you REALLY from?”.
The point is that maybe the speaker has no intention of hurting the recipient with such remarks. Maybe they are just unaware of how these microaggressions can have a lasting impact on the audience. However, lack of awareness is no excuse anymore. One should always be mindful of their word and actions. Even more so in a workplace where teams are diverse and multi-cultural.
In this article, we will go into detail about microaggressions in the workplace, their types, and examples. We will wrap the topic up by suggesting some strategies that you can adopt to stop yourself and others from committing microaggressions.
What Are Microaggressions in the Workplace?
Microagressions are subtle intentional and unintentional behaviors or remarks that are directed at people from marginalized communities. Microaggressions have their roots in the centuries-old biases that people have against marginalized communities. It is generally the lack of knowledge about how these communities exist that gives birth to such biases.
Microaggressions occur everywhere and the workplace is not different. Although known as micro-aggressions, their impact can be measured on a macro level. This means that they leave a negative impact on the victims. Because people spend more than half of their lives in offices, microaggressions in the workplace can affect their physical and mental health.
Only 3% of Black employees want to return to working full-time from the office after the pandemic. The number peak volume of how much these people find comfort in working from home which is free from negativity and toxic remarks.
To gain a better understanding, let’s have a look at the types of microaggressions in the workplace.
Types of Microaggressions in the Workplace
There are 3 types of microaggressions in the workplace:
- Behavioral: Directing negative actions, symbols, and insensitivity to identities
- Environmental: An environment or culture that lacks diversity and inclusion
- Verbal: Passing comments and remarks that are offensive to employees from marginalized communities
Identities and communities generally that face microaggressions in the workplace are:
- Socio-economic class
- Citizenship status
- Sexual orientation
Microaggressions can also be intersectional. They target people who are at the intersection of many overlapping identities. For example, a transgender woman or a disabled immigrant.
9 Examples of Microaggressions in the Workplace
There are several instances of microaggressions that occur on a daily basis in the workplace. Here are a few examples to give you an idea of the phrases and comments that people intentionally or intentionally hurl at marginalized communities.
You’re so articulate.
Now, you may wonder what is wrong with a phrase that compliments. And you’re right to think that way. But, saying this to people of color can be demeaning. A white-dominant society usually does not expect African-Americans to be so articulate. In fact, black people have a deep-rooted history of being ridiculed for their language, speaking habits, and accent.
Sometimes, these verbal cues are also accompanied by non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language. That aggravates the offense and negativity even more.
Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to comment on how people speak. Applaud them on their knowledge, ideas, and insights instead.
Oh Sorry, Wrong Person!
If you have a colleague that comes from a marginalized and underrepresented community, the chances are that people are going to mix up their names with other members from their community quite often.
Now, this may sound like not such a big thing. But, it is actually. It means that the speaker finds both members indistinguishable because of their identity. They’re casually perpetuating a stereotype, maybe even without realizing it.
People take serious offense if their names are misspelled, mispronounced, or confused with others. If you aren’t sure how to spell or pronounce someone’s name, ask once and remember it carefully. Not all names are anglicized and they shouldn’t have to be.
There’s no excuse to get away with it anymore. Learn your coworkers’ names.
My * Insert the Name of Female Boss* Is Crazy!
Referring to a woman as crazy is a sexist remark because words like ‘crazy’ or ‘hysterical’ have a complex history for women.
In the 19th century, women who were seen as troublemakers or having anxiety issues were termed as ‘hysterical’.
Referring to a woman as ‘crazy’ signifies that her work or actions are illogical.
What can you do or say instead? Firstly, try to understand her perspective and the logic behind it. If you still don’t agree with her viewpoint, you can reason with her and try to find common ground. Don’t go around bad-mouthing and undermining her behind her back.
Where Are You Really From?
Everything is wrong with this question. Firstly, it takes a sense of belonging from the recipient. It implies that they are not of American origin given their appearance. Secondly, it gives to rise a sense of insecurity. The recipient is made to think that their appearance is inconsistent with that of ‘regular’ Americans.
So, next time if you are curious about your colleague’s origin or ethnicity, ask yourself why you even care. It is best to avoid this topic unless the other person brings it up on their own.
Your Name Is Difficult to Pronounce
A mentioned earlier, people find it agitating if their names are mispronounced. It is natural to come across people, regardless of race, gender, and ethnicity, who have names that are unique and a little challenging to pronounce.
Instead of making them feel that they are culturally out of place for having such a difficult name, politely ask them to pronounce it for you. Pointing out its perceived difficulty means that according to you their identity is not important enough to invest a little bit of additional effort in.
I Think You’re in the Wrong Meeting Room
Women often face microaggressions in the workplace for their choice of career. For instance, people automatically assume that women are more inclined towards design, HR, or marketing in some instances. So some sexists may think that seeing a woman in a STEM job is odd. Pointing out that they shouldn’t be in the engineering stand-up is a guaranteed way to earn a one-way ticket to HR.
Similarly, pointing or rolling eyes at a man sitting in an art or calligraphy class is equally offensive.
What’s the solution to this? Avoid making any assumptions. The world is evolving and so are people’s choices and interests. Live and let live.
You Look So Young. Are You Still Studying?
Women get to hear this more than men.
When you compliment women on their appearance, you reinforce the belief that a women’s worth is tied to how she looks. They are judged by how attractive they are and not by their expertise or intelligence.
Commenting on someone’s looks implies that you are undermining their authority in the role. It can also imply that they look inexperienced or too young for their work.
It is always a better idea to not comment on someone’s appearance. If you really want to know someone’s designation, look it up in the company’s profile or simply ask without making any uncalled-for remarks.
Can I Touch Your Hair?
“Is that your real hair” or “How do you manage your hair” are some of the phrases that African Americans hear quite often.
People in the corporate world mostly perceive African women’s hair as unprofessional and a deviation from the dress code. As a result, many black women feel anxious and end up straightening their hair to “fit in” to Eurocentric beauty standards.
It is sad and infuriating. No one should be made to feel insecure about their natural appearance. It should never be considered culturally incorrect in any way.
Any Kind of Interruption
Interfering men or women in the middle of a conversation is something that employees need to avoid. Women are interrupted more often than men. Men try to overrule them by sharing the same thought and ideas just rephrased.
Let your colleagues finish their pieces. If you agree with their thoughts and ideas, give them due credit.
How to Respond to Microaggressions in the Workplace?
If you’re experiencing microaggressions in the workplace, you can respond in the following ways:
Address the Issue
If the microaggression was made by a single person, you can hold them accountable. It is a good approach to talk to them in person before filing a complaint. By this, you take the high road and try to mitigate the conflict. And all you are asking for is a simple apology and a correction of behavior.
But if they’re a repeat offender and you feel that they aren’t worth the effort, do not bother. You don’t need to be the bigger person.
Pen Down Your Thoughts
Writing down thoughts is a good way to calm your nerves and feel relaxed. Moreover, when you express your thoughts on paper, you are able to recall all the times when you were invalidated or stereotyped by others. This exercise will also help you paint a picture if you decide to file a formal complaint.
Some of the questions that you need to have an answer for are:
- Tell about an instance when you faced microaggression
- How did you feel after it?
- Did it affect your mental health and self-esteem?
- What did you wish you would have said to your perpetrator?
What to Do if You Have Committed a Microaggression in the Workplace?
Many times, we fail to align our words and actions with our ideology. Many of us have committed microaggressions in the workplace or elsewhere. As far as it’s unintentional, there’s a way to rectify it. If you have unintentionally carried microaggressions in the workplace, it doesn’t mean that you are an insensitive person.
However, once you have, you must confront such situations and take them as an opportunity to learn. Recognize your privilege and pass the mike to listen to marginalized sections’ concerns and admit your mistake. Let’s have a look at some of the things you can do in such a situation:
Don’t React Defensively
Taking criticism is not everyone’s cup of tea especially when you’re being criticized for something that you were unaware of. You didn’t have the intention to hurt or offend anyone but you cannot deny the fact that your remark or behavior caused them pain.
Listen With an Empathetic Heart
Listen intently as the other person expressed their feelings or share a perspective. Don’t invalidate their feelings by saying something similar to “I was just joking.”, “Don’t take it so seriously.” or “It was just a joke.”
By saying so, you will end up invalidating the other person’s experience.
Acknowledge the Pain You Caused
Have the heart and courage to acknowledge the agony your words or actions may have caused the other person. Verbally admitting your mistake is a way of promising yourself and the victim that the same behavior won’t be repeated. It is a way of telling the other person that you will act more responsibly in the future.
This goes without even saying. Apologize wholeheartedly and do not expect any apology in return. Instead, educate yourself and be mindful of your words and actions in the future.
Acknowledge the Pain You Caused
If you wish to understand colleagues from marginalized communities better and the microaggressions that they have been through, you may ask for details. But this is only possible if you share a good bond and the other person is comfortable in sharing. You should avoid forcing them.
We live in a connected world where a lack of awareness cannot be an excuse. There are several resources online that can be used to educate ourselves on marginalized communities.
How to Stop Microaggressions in the Workplace?
HR managers have a key role to play here. They are accountable for developing a culture that doesn’t indulge in microaggressions. Let’s wrap up this piece with some of the steps that HR managers can take to resolve this issue.
First of all, HR managers need to educate themselves before turning to the rest of the organization. There are several resources that you can make use of such as books, podcasts, movies, or TV shows that will help you seek awareness and get rid of unconscious biases.
After this, you can arrange some training or awareness sessions for the rest of the company.
Stand Up for Co-Workers From Marginalized Communities
As an HR manager, you have the authority to stand up against any microaggressions in the workplace. Approach the attacker politely but firmly. Ask for clarity. Take a stand and serious action if necessary.
Update Company Policies
One thing that you can do to promote diversity and inclusion in the culture is to ask for more resources and support systems for employees from marginalized communities.
Create Awareness About Microaggressions
Hold awareness sessions at the workplace to educate employees on how they are capable of unintentional microaggressions. Make them understand the different types and that they impact the mental and physical well-being of people.