What Are Microaggressions and How to Stamp Them Out

There is much discourse online about microaggressions today. Some may think it refers to bad behaviour, explicit or otherwise exhibited towards other people. This is true but with the addition that this behaviour is towards someone belonging to a marginalised group.

The term microaggression was coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce to describe the insults and dismissals experienced by black students from non-black students. Today, the meaning has widened to describe these insults when they are meted out towards people belonging to any socially, politically or economically marginalised group.

Microaggressions are often seen in seemingly innocuous behaviour like:

Excluding someone from an activity because you assume they wouldn’t be interested.

Someone may mention that a female colleague should be in charge of the food preparations at a work party. This is driven by an assumption that women will automatically cater to the food.

A colleague may tell an Asian colleague that they speak really good English despite the fact that said colleague is a citizen of an English speaking country. That is another thing about Microaggressions, they may be packaged as compliments and the aggressor may not even be aware of what they are doing.

Microaggressions are judgments made based on people’s backgrounds or culture. They may be made about anything from people’s abilities, their skills to the hobbies they enjoy. While they are diverse, microaggressions have one thing in common; they leave the person on the receiving end with a negative feeling. They may feel hurt, undermined, insulted and because microaggressions aren’t always direct, confused.

Psychologist Derald W. Sue and writer of the book Microaggressions in everyday life describes them as “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalised experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

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How to stamp out microaggressions in the workplace

Sensitivity training

Sensitivity training is a crucial step to stamping out microaggressions. It shows employees how their behaviour or attitudes affect others. Remember those on the giving end of microaggressions might not be aware that what they are saying is offensive.

Training teaches everyone how to communicate and interact with everyone respectfully despite their diverse backgrounds.

Sensitivity training also serves to validate what those on the receiving end feel. Microaggressions are sometimes so subtly delivered that employees wonder if they are being too sensitive when they take offence. This training gives them the language and permission to express their feelings in the face of negative interactions.

On the other hand, it is not uncommon for employees to feel defensive when confronted about a microaggression. This is because they might not be aware of the effect of their words or actions. In sensitivity training, they too can learn how to respond when someone approaches and also how to grow from those interactions.

Teach conflict resolution

You will find different religions and ethnicities in a multicultural workplace. They may all have different practices, some of which may be in conflict with each other. Despite that, employees should be aware that they need to be respectful of one another.

Employees need to have the skills required to resolve conflict among each other. This will help them address issues when they arise. It will benefit workplace culture, interpersonal relationships and maintain productivity.

Open dialogues among colleagues will help them to demystify each other’s differences. A code of conduct which guides employee behaviour is another important tool that can stamp out microaggressions.

Hire diversely

Microaggressions are bred from bias. These biases are encouraged when people only interact with those like them. A diverse workplace will expose people to a spectrum of cultures, religions and more. The interactions colleagues have with each other will help them to see that what they thought of a specific group of people does not apply to every single member.

Microaggressions aren’t only limited to colleagues. Staff may exhibit this behaviour with customers as well. This exposure to a diverse environment will enable your people to serve all customers fairly.

Acknowledge situations when they happen

Brushing off employees’ concerns when they happen will undermine efforts to stamp out micro aggression. Remember, microaggressions can appear innocent so an employee might not be sure how to feel about something when it happens.

Give them audience to air their feelings and openly talk about it with both parties. This will give employees the licence to report other incidents to you and work as a teaching moment for the other employee about how they should treat others.

In addition, be an ally and encourage others to be the same. Speak out against situations of microaggressions when you see them. This makes it a collective effort and not just the task of people in minority groups.

When you acknowledge situations, be sure that there is a reconciliation component. Because you are in a work setting, team mates will have to continue working together. They should be supported and encouraged to mend fences.

Teach people how to respond

If someone shares that you have offended them with a micro aggression, what can you do? All employees should be given information about how to respond to this question. Steps include:

Pausing to acknowledge the information you are getting and not responding immediately

Taking a moment to educate yourself. This will also give your colleague a chance to catch their breath.

Asking for clarification on the issue. Depending on the situation, some employees may be able to navigate how to respond by themselves, others may need to have a manager or an HR rep be present during the interaction.

Conclude by acknowledging the harm done and apologising. You might want to mention that you are always open for dialogue and appreciate your colleague pointing the issue out to you.

In Summary

Microaggressions don’t just hurt people’s feelings. They affect entire office cultures, can result in steady decline in productivity and even open a business up to lawsuits.

To stamp it out, management has to work on multiple fronts: educating all employees, creating a culture of open dialogue so people can speak up when they are faced with microaggressions and creating an environment where inclusivity and mutual respect are a priority.

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald is a freelance writer with a pen that is keen for entrepreneurship, business and technology. When he isn't writing insightful articles on employee engagement and corporate culture, Gerald can be found writing for a number of media outlets.