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A Simplified Guide to Recognizing and Handling Microaggressions Effectively in the Workplace

Updated: Jan 26

A Simplified Guide to Recognizing and Handling Microaggressions Effectively in the Workplace
A Simplified Guide to Recognizing and Handling Microaggressions Effectively in the Workplace

Caveat: This article is intended for educational purposes, and as such contains some common examples of microaggressions.

Creating an inclusive workplace culture where every team member can thrive is not an overnight process. It actually takes a continuous process of deliberately learning, adjusting, evolving, and growing. To create inclusive and healthy workplaces where everyone belongs, managers and employers must proactively deal with microaggressions.

To handle microaggressions effectively in the workplace, you must understand what they are, how they show up, and how to respond appropriately to them, whether they impact you or your colleagues. This is because microaggressions have a negative impact on inclusivity and belonging in the workplace. Whereas inclusive work environments have a positive impact on employee well-being, mental health, and productivity.

Microaggressions show up in the workplace in many different forms, but the impact is frequently the same — a feeling of disrespect and confirmation of existing inequality. With workplaces across the globe trying to eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, dealing with microaggressions decisively will go a long way to fostering a healthier workplace culture.

What are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are verbal, behavioral, environmental actions, insensitive statements, questions, or assumptions that communicate an indirect, subtle, or unintentional bias, hostility, or discrimination against a historically marginalized group, such as people of color, religious, racial, and ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ persons, persons with disabilities, and religious minorities.

Microaggressions can target many aspects of people’s identity, such as their age, color, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, marital status, mental health, or any other aspect of their identity. In many cases, we commit microaggressions without even knowing. And that’s because microaggressions are so frequently common in the workplace and are barely perceptible sometimes. Someone might be scrutinized for being overly sensitive when they call other people out for committing a microaggression.

Microaggressions are somewhat linked to our biases and prejudice — many of which are unconscious. For instance, you might have made a comment like “I didn’t realize you were Black until I saw you at the park — you don’t sound Black,” signaling that a person of African descent or Black color has a stereotypical mannerism/sound.

Sometimes, a microaggression may show up as a seemingly harmless remark like “You speak very good English! Where are you from again?” indicating that people who speak English as a second language are generally less capable of speaking good English. A microaggression against a Chinese person could be “You are not like the other Chinese people I know.” Whether this statement is meant as a positive or negative remark, it creates an impression in the mind of the recipient and to other people present, that Chinese people are associated with certain stereotypes.

This can affect how the person fits into your team or the organization at large. Hence, to create inclusive and healthy workplaces, without any inequalities, bias, or discrimination, we must start by understanding and recognizing microaggressions in the workplace.

Recognizing Microaggressions in the Workplace

For many employees, microaggression is still a new concept, even though the term has been around for quite a few decades. Truly, having genuine conversations on tough subjects, like racial profiling, homophobia, sexism, and our religious diversity is the best way to embrace DEI in the workplace. So the more awareness we have of these issues and how they show up, the more we can decrease their occurrence in the workplace.

Recognizing microaggression requires that we know the kinds of words we use in our daily communications that might suggest or may be considered microaggression when we communicate with colleagues. No doubt, this will require some work and must be encouraged in a way that calls people in without shaming them. Instead, gradual and deliberate adjustments here and there (without necessarily calling anyone out) can go a long way to help.

Here are a few more typical instances that indicate how microaggressions show up in the workplace.

Citizenship Based Microaggressions

“I thought you were originally from Kenya. Never thought you’d get recommended for the board list?” This statement suggests that where people grew up isn’t their true origin or it could mean that people from a certain region, ethnicity, or origin are not qualified for certain positions.

Microaggression towards people with mental health issues

“That’s crazy! I think you’re taking things too seriously. I wasn’t this depressed when I worked in that office.” This dismisses or minimizes the experiences of people who might be working under very stressful conditions or those with mental illness.

The word "crazy" itself is actually a derogatory term despite its frequent use, especially in casual remarks or conversations. And as such, it can negatively impact people with mental health issues.

Gender Microaggressions

“Really? Does your wife/husband know about that?” could be perceived by members of the LGBTQ+ community as a microaggression because it assumes a heteronormative culture that could be avoided by using a more inclusive statement like “Does your partner know about that?” In corporate environments, using proper pronouns to address people will help reduce incidences of microaggression.

Microaggression against parental/marital status

“You don’t have a spouse or child you’re nursing, so I guess you can put in more hours.”, indicating that they don’t have a life outside work.

Handling Microaggressions Effectively in the Workplace

In professional environments, microaggressions have a way of affecting the relationships between colleagues, which might consequently impact workflow and productivity at work. It is also evident in the larger society. Knowing how they show up is one step, but most important is knowing how to deal with microaggression whenever they’re spotted in the workplace.

Microaggressions could be directed at you or someone else, or you might realize that you’re the one who has committed a microaggression. Depending on the situation, you might need to respond immediately or defer your response until a later time. In addition to this, knowing how to respond without shaming anyone or creating a situation that causes additional discomfort to the person who has experienced a microaggression is essential to addressing microaggressions in a respectful and effective manner.

Microaggressions often seem harmless to people who aren't regularly marginalized, so they may not even see it. People who are most likely to be negatively impacted by microaggressions include ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, and people living with disabilities or a health condition.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with microaggressions. However, here are some examples of how to handle microaggression at work.

1. Should you respond immediately?

Take, for instance, a team meeting where someone mistakenly uses the wrong pronoun to address another colleague. In addressing the error, you need to consider the environment and be mindful of creating a safe space for future conversations, so team members don’t end up feeling awkward among each other.

While this is something that can be addressed in detail later on after the meeting, it might help to address it right there in the meeting by “calling them in” as against “calling them out” for committing a microaggression.

As the leader of the team, you can respond to the statement that misgendered someone with one using their correct pronoun and then speak the person who misgendered the other person about it in private afterward if it's perceived as having been intentional or there is a pattern misgendering. This will most likely keep the meeting going and correct the person who made the error without putting them on the spot. It will also assure the person wrongly addressed that the organization or team is deliberate about creating a safe, healthy, and inclusive workspace.

2. Consider your relationship to the person who made the comment?

If responding to a statement was directed at you, you might need to consider your relationship with the person. If you’re close, you can easily tell them to address you more appropriately. But if you’re not close to them or do not know them personally, you might need to be more circumspect when approaching them or involve others who are closer to them.

Lets look at some ways you could address this in the moment. “I know it was unintentional but when you used "her" when speaking about me in the meeting, it felt as if everyone was staring at me and judging me because of my gender." or "I know it wasn't intentional when you used “Miss” while addressing me earlier, but my pronouns are him/his and I appreciate you making the effort to use my correct pronouns."

3. Be honest about how you feel and how familiar you are with the subject

If you recognize that you are not familiar with the subject being discussed, you should be clear about your ignorance of the subject, apologize, and ask for education on the subject. For instance, if you are the person who committed the microaggression, consider saying something like, "I'm sorry. I didn't realize that. I'd like to understand more about this so that I don't make a similar mistake in the future. If you know of a resource I should use, I'd appreciate it. Otherwise, I'll look it up."

A statement like this conveys your acknowledgment of the impact without being defensive or dismissive as well as your desire to do better. It also allows the other person the option of suggesting a resource rather than expecting them to shoulder the emotional labor of educating you.

If the microaggression was committed against you, you might need to let the person understand the impact of their error on you. Here, you clarify the difference between intent and impact. For example, when addressing them, you can say, “I know you didn't intend for your statement earlier to come off as offensive, but it is actually misgendering for me.”

4. Point out the organization’s policy

Ideally, the company has a policy protecting the drive to inclusivity and discouraging discrimination — in all its forms. Remember to help anyone who commits a microaggression, either intentionally or unintentionally, understand that their behavior does not align with the company’s policies.

Empathy, humor, appealing to values and principles, and the benefits of inclusivity should also be considered when handling microaggressions in the workplace.

Microaggressions are sometimes unnoticed in the workplace, but they contribute to the negative experiences of employees at work. Therefore, learning to identify and properly address microaggressions helps to make workplaces safer, healthier, and more equitable for everyone.

Want to learn more? Feel free to reach out to us today at FIC Human Resource Partners and we’ll happily walk you through how your organization can create an inclusive and healthy workplace where everyone is performing at their best.

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