Microaggressions at work can create division and mistrust. They are everyday subtle put-downs directed towards marginalized groups, which may be verbal or non-verbal. Microaggressions can lead to decreased motivation, decreased productivity, and increased absenteeism.
At AllyBot, a tool for encouraging inclusive language, we believe that microaggressions at work are a real and pressing issue. Employers must be aware of these mental health issues, and work towards creating a safe and inclusive environment for everyone.
What are Microaggressions at Work?
Researchers define microaggressions as everyday subtle put-downs directed towards a marginalized group which may be verbal or non-verbal and are typically automatic.
To give you an idea, FutureForm found that only 3% of Black employees want to return to full-time co-located work, compared to 21% of White employees in the U.S.
As we work to embed concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into society, those committed to change must recognize the power of language in directing us closer together or pushing us further apart.
Simply said, words matter. Our words significantly create a psychologically safe, inclusive, friendly, and accessible work environment.
Types of Microaggressions: Microassault, Microinsult, Microinvalidation
To understand the scale of microaggressions, we must understand how they’re perpetuated on a regular basis.
While microaggressions may seem minor or insignificant, they can significantly impact someone’s day-to-day life. If you’re experiencing harmful microaggressions at work, it’s important to notice and address them urgently.
Microassaults are the most direct and easily recognizable forms of microaggressions. They’re intentional, deliberate acts communicating hostility or negative slights toward a person’s racial heritage. For example, if someone at work uses racial insults or addresses sexist phrases, that’s a microassault.
Microinsults are verbal or nonverbal communications that convey rudeness or insensitivity and demean a person’s dignity, worth or belonging. They can be intentional or unintentional, and they communicate a message that the other person is inferior. For example, if someone at work regularly uses your first name but never refers to your colleague by their first name, that’s a microinsult.
Microinvalidations are communications that negate or exclude people’s experiences or reality. They communicate that what a person is feeling or thinking isn’t valid. For example, if you’re talking to a colleague about their project and say, “Well, that’s not gonna work,” that’s a microinvalidation.
The Impact of Microaggressions and unconscious bias in the Workplace
Microaggressions can greatly impact your organization’s culture and overall well-being. Not only by making individuals feel bad, but they can also lead to a feeling of us versus them. This can create division and mistrust in the workplace and lead to turnover, absenteeism, and decreased productivity.
In the same vein, unconscious bias is a big problem in the workplace. It can cause people to act in harmful ways to marginalized communities, and it can often go unchecked because it usually comes in the form of “just a joke.”
One way to raise awareness of the issue is to ensure everyone in your organization knows what bias is and how it can manifest itself in inappropriate behavior. You can also create training programs to help employees recognize and deal with their own biases.
Preventing Microaggressions at Work
There are a few things you can do to prevent microaggressions in the workplace:
- Awareness: The first step is to be aware of your biases and the potential for microaggressions. Consider employing an implicit bias test to learn more about your team’s inclination.
- Education: Once you’re aware of your own bias, you can start to educate yourself and others about microaggressions. This includes learning about broader emotional intelligence.
- Communication: If you witness or experience a microaggression, you must communicate directly with the person who did it. This can be tough, but you need to tackle the issue before it worsens.
- Policy: Create company policies at work to make it clear that microaggressions are not tolerated. This can include things like anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.
- Feedback sessions: Make sure that your anti-discrimination policies and initiatives are working by having feedback sessions and surveys with employees.
- Use technology: Use tools to communicate effectively, such as Slack, Gmail, and Zoom. AllyBot checks for over 400 non-inclusive words and phrases. It’s one of the most comprehensive tools for educating your team on inclusive language.
Addressing Microaggressions in the Workplace
Nonviolent communication, empathy, and compassion are all vital tools for addressing microaggressions. When we understand the root of someone’s behavior, we can communicate in a way that is more likely to be heard.
As the creator of nonviolent communication, Marshall Rosenberg said, “Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is a tragic expression of an unmet need.”
By learning to communicate nonviolently, you will achieve this ‘superpower’ of hearing beyond words and understanding the needs motivating someone’s behavior.
The following are key steps for nonviolent communication:
- Observe what happened without judging the person or their behavior.
- Express your feelings about what happened without judging the person or their behavior.
- Try to identify the need that wasn’t met and ask if that’s the case.
- Ask what would have helped meet those needs in the situation.
How to deal with microaggressions
Although challenging, you need to have uncomfortable conversations with people who make offensive comments in order to address the issue. This includes explaining how the statement felt offensive and what your future needs are. We also recommend dealing with this issue through an intermediary who can help enact a system to prevent microaggressions at work.
Here are a few nonviolent ways to ask someone to stop making nasty comments and pledge to do better in the future. We recommend looking at these confrontations as learning moments rather than personal attacks.
- “When you said ‘that’s not gonna work,’ I felt invalidated and dismissed. I need to feel like my experiences are valid.”
- “When you used the term ‘crazy,’ I felt disrespected. I need to feel like my mental health is respected.”
- “When you made that joke about my accent, I felt belittled and othered. I need to feel like I belong here.”
- “When you said ‘hey guys’ instead of ‘folks’ I felt left out. I need to feel included.”
- “When you interrupted me, I felt unheard and unimportant. I need to feel like my ideas are valued.”
- “When you told me to smile, I felt objectified and disrespected. I need to feel like I’m taken seriously.”
Practicing nonviolent communication is always beneficial, even if the best outcome is a simple apology. Keep in mind, though, that the same behavior can make the situation worse if left unaddressed.
Let’s Create a More Inclusive Work Environment for Everyone
Leaders and HR managers need to be aware of the potential impact of microaggressions and be proactive in addressing them. Whether by creating policies, increasing communication, or using a specialized tool to educate employees, taking steps to address microaggressions can help create a more inclusive workplace.
We at AllyBot, take a step forward and stand by those who experience microaggressions daily. We pledge to be better communicators, better allies, and better people. We will continue to learn and grow, and we invite you to join us on this journey.