The AltoPartners Guide to Diversity and Inclusion : Microaggressions in the workplace: How to identify them and how to overcome them

October 06, 2022 Share this article:


Oprah Winfrey was once told, “You’re not really black”, by one of her wealthy neighbours, who was trying to make her feel better about being in a minority in her neighbourhood.

The story may be apocryphal – but the reality it encapsulates is not.

Winfrey’s colour being denied in this way is a microaggression – a concept that’s been around in the field of psychology since the 1970s and which came into wider focus as a result of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

What is a microaggression?

Dr Derald Wing Sue, who has done much work in the field, says microaggressions are “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalised group membership”.

These hidden messages may invalidate a person’s group identity or experienced reality, or they can suggest that someone is a lesser human being or that they don’t belong to a majority group, whether it’s around a boardroom table or in a neighbourhood park. They might be threatening or intimidatory, or they might assign inferior status or treatment.

Microaggressions can target many aspects of who people are – race, gender, sexuality, parental status, socioeconomic background, mental health, ability, or age.

What is unconscious or implicit bias?

Sue notes that research suggests that most people harbour unconscious biases and prejudices that “leak out” in interpersonal situations. He says it is hard to get people to realise that they are acting in a biased manner because they see themselves as fair-minded individuals who would never consciously discriminate.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity has this to say about implicit biases and how they operate:

  • Implicit biases are pervasive. Everyone possesses them, even people with avowed commitments to impartiality (like judges).
  • The implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.
  • We generally tend to hold implicit biases that favour our own in-group, although research has shown that we can still hold implicit biases against our in-group.
  • Implicit biases are malleable. The implicit associations that we have formed

Why is it important for workplaces to deal with microaggressions?

It might seem that microaggressions are small (it says so in the name, right?). But as sociologist Dr Robert Reece points out: “The ‘micro’ prefix in ‘microaggression’ isn’t a measurement of the size of the slight. It means it happens at the “micro” level, i.e., between individuals … in contrast to the ‘macro’ level, which refers to social structures and institutions.”

According to a study from Texas A&M University, this everyday stereotyping results in a myriad of negative outcomes: increased anxiety, stress, and depression, lowered organisational commitment and job satisfaction; and lowered perceptions of fairness. In the workplace, this creates “lowered task performance, increased counterproductive work behaviour, and ultimately increases in withdrawal behaviour and turnover intentions.”

Examples of microaggression - and what to say or do instead

As Harvard Business Review puts it, microaggressions are based on a simple but damaging idea: “Because you are X, you probably are/are not or like/don’t like Y.”

Here’s how that sounds in real life:

“I didn’t realize you were Jewish – you don’t look Jewish”. This says that a person of Jewish heritage has a stereotypical look. Instead: Don’t say anything.

“Your English is so good – where are your parents from?”. This implies that people with English as a second language are generally less capable of speaking English or must come from somewhere alien and different. Instead say: “I’m from X (this place), where are you from?”

“Do you have a wife/husband?” Assumes heteronormative culture and behaviours. Instead: “Do you have a partner?”

“You don’t have kids to pick up, so you can work later, right?” Someone without children does not have a life outside of work. Instead: “Are you able to work late tonight?”

“Racism isn’t something that exists at our company.” This assumption dismisses a peer’s concerns about race, ethnicity, or culture at work. Instead say: “What has been your experience at our company?”

“You’re transgender? Wow, you don’t look like it at all.” Telling a transgender person that they don’t “look trans” might appear to be a compliment but it implies that being trans isn’t desirable. Instead: Say nothing.

“Do you even know what Snapchat is?” People who believe that only those in their 20s and 30s could possibly know about things like memes are stereotyping older people. Instead: Again, say nothing.

How not to be a microaggressor

Jenée Desmond-Harris, writing for Vox, has the following advice:

  • Put some thought into the biases you might hold.
  • Become curious about the way your words and actions are perceived by others.
  • Listen when people explain why certain remarks offend them.
  • Make it a habit to stop for a beat and think before you speak, especially when you’re weighing in on someone’s identity.

What victims of microaggression in the workplace can do

When you’re the target of microaggressions, consider the following steps:

  • Seek support from trusted peers and loved ones.
  • Recognise your own value and potential by not letting anyone else set the standard for who you are as a person.
  • Address the situation head-on by confronting your aggressor in a professional manner.
  • Go to HR to document the issue and ask for assistance.

What leadership can do

Here are some things managers can do to resolve the issue:

  • Educate themselves on the different types of microaggressions.
  • Recognise their own biases and prejudices.
  • Become an ally (advocate for others when they see microaggression in the workplace).
  • Update company policies to cover microaggression.

Companies should also consider anti-bias training. As an example, Ralph Lauren built a formal unconscious bias and microaggression training programme in 2018 as part of its diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) efforts. The mandatory training – Respect and Inclusions: Allyship and Advocacy – was completed by all managers in July 2020 and by the entire employee population in December 2020. The training is now required of all new hires.

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