Microaggressions in the Workplace: Tips and Examples To Create a Happy Work Environment

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Saphia Lanier
Saphia Lanier

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You’re in a meeting, sharing what you feel are excellent ideas with the team. However, to your left, you notice a co-worker rolling her eyes and another blowing his breath. 

Microaggressions in the workplace: a conference call meeting.

Or maybe you’re at a company party and are engaged in a conversation that turns south when a colleague says, “I know you’re [insert race], so you likely don’t like [insert action].” 

Instances like these are called microaggressions and happen daily in workplaces across America. A study by SurveyMonkey shows only 40% of American workers state they haven’t experienced microaggressions at work — which means that the majority of American workers have. 

Ignoring this issue could lead to a negative work environment and increased turnover. 

What are microaggressions in the workplace

Microaggressions in the workplace are subtle, often unintentional acts or comments that discriminate against individuals or groups based on their characteristics (e.g., gender, race, lifestyle). These acts or comments are derogatory or negative and can create a hostile or unwelcoming work environment.

Examples include making assumptions about someone’s abilities, using stereotypes to make judgments, dismissing or invalidating someone’s experiences or perspectives, or making comments that belittle or marginalize certain groups.

Effects of microaggressions in the workplace 

Allowing microaggressions to persist in your business can lead to various problems, such as:

  1. Decreased productivity: Microaggressions can create a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere, leading to decreased employee focus and productivity.
  2. Negative emotional impact: Being subjected to microaggressions can cause emotional distress, anxiety, and a sense of isolation for those targeted.
  3. Damaged morale: Microaggressions erode trust, teamwork, and morale within the workplace, leading to a negative impact on employee engagement and motivation.
  4. Increased turnover: Employees experiencing microaggressions may feel compelled to leave the organization, resulting in higher turnover rates and losing valuable talent. An HBR study shows 50% of workers would consider quitting if faced with microaggressions.
  5. Impaired collaboration: Microaggressions hinder effective collaboration and communication among team members, leading to a fragmented and less cohesive work environment.
  6. Reduced job satisfaction: Experiencing microaggressions can significantly impact job satisfaction, making employees feel undervalued and unappreciated. The same HBR survey reveals that 70% of workers say microaggressions would make them angry.
  7. Hindered diversity and inclusion efforts: Microaggressions create barriers to diversity and inclusion initiatives, making it difficult for underrepresented groups to feel welcome and thrive in the workplace.
  8. Negative reputation: A workplace that tolerates microaggressions can develop a negative reputation, making attracting and retaining top talent challenging.

Examples of microaggressions in the workplace

Looking for microaggressions in the workplace isn’t always straightforward. They’re subtle and can appear in various scenarios.

So here’s a look at how microaggressions may appear in a work environment:

  1. Racial Microaggression: A colleague asks a person of color where they are “really” from, implying they are not true Americans.

  2. Gender Microaggression: During a meeting, a male co-worker consistently interrupts and talks over female colleagues, dismissing their ideas and contributions.

  3. Age Microaggression: An older employee is called “Grandma” or “Grandpa,” undermining their professional expertise and experience.

  4. Religious Microaggression: A co-worker makes jokes or comments that mock or belittle someone’s religious beliefs or practices.

  5. Ableist Microaggression: A co-worker assumes that a person with a disability needs constant assistance or cannot perform specific tasks, underestimating their abilities.

  6. LGBTQ+ Microaggression: A co-worker makes derogatory remarks or uses offensive language toward individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

  7. Microaggression Against Non-Native English Speakers: A colleague constantly corrects or mocks the accent or pronunciation of a non-native English speaker, making them feel self-conscious and excluded.

  8. Microaggression Based on Socioeconomic Status: A co-worker assumes that someone from a lower socioeconomic background is less competent or motivated, perpetuating stereotypes.

  9. Microaggression Based on Body Size: Comments or jokes about someone’s weight or body shape can lead to body shaming and lower self-esteem.

  10. Microaggression Based on Nationality: Making assumptions or generalizations about someone’s nationality, such as assuming all individuals from a particular country have a specific skill set or behavior.

How to deal with microaggressions in the workplace

When these issues appear in your business, it’s vital to immediately nip it in the bud. Let’s review some of the strategies you can use to eliminate microaggressions in your workplace.

Collect feedback from employees

The first step to dealing with microaggressions in the workplace is to identify if, where, and how they exist. Since this is a touchy topic, it’s best to run an anonymous survey to collect employee feedback.

Use a mix of multiple-choice and open-ended questions to get a good understanding of what employees think. For example, you can include questions like: 

  • Do you feel microaggressions are common in our workplace?
  • What kind of microaggressions do you feel are common?
  • How often do you feel microaggressions in the workplace?
  • What do you think causes microaggressions in the workplace?
  • What do you think we can do to eliminate microaggressions?
  • Do you notice favoritism in the workplace (as a result of microaggressions)?

Create strict policies against microaggressions in the workplace

After you gather feedback from your workers, it’s time to draft new policies to address the issue. Your policy book should include things like:

  • Description of what microaggressions are
  • What microaggressions look like in the workplace
  • Tips and resources for learning about microaggressions and how to avoid engaging in them 
  • Clear outline of the consequences for engaging in microaggressions 
  • Regular training for addressing/preventing microaggressions in your workplace

This is a partial list of what should be in your new policy book. You can add more based on your organization’s needs. 

Train your leaders to avoid and identify microaggressions

Your team managers are on the front lines, working directly with your employees. Odds are, they’re more likely to see microaggressions. Train them to identify these subtle behaviors and what to do to stop them. 

For instance, if the behavior continues, it could begin with a warning, then escalate to a suspension without pay and firing. 

Your managers can also host one-on-ones with team members for feedback to ensure they’re detecting and eliminating “microaggressive” behaviors.

Offer support to victims of microaggressions in the workplace

Turnover is an issue when workplaces leave microaggressions unchecked. To prevent workers from leaving after these unfortunate incidents, you can offer support and resources. 

For example, you can offer mental health counseling to employees who are feeling emotionally drained after a traumatic event. Or you can offer employee assistance programs to help workers deal with the impact of these situations.

If the situation is dire, then allowing paid time off to recover is a great way to show support. This grants employees time to reflect on the event and come back refreshed. 

Just be sure to carry out the consequences outlined in your new policy book.

Document microaggressions in your workplace

Whenever a new microaggression incident is reported, document it. You can make this public, to show the company’s commitment to tracking and dealing with microaggressions. 

The purpose of documenting microaggressions is to protect employees from future incidents. If you have a two-strike or three-strike rule, this will determine when it’s time to act against an offending worker. 

Be sure to include dates, times, and details of what was said and done. This will act as your evidence in case the worker claims they did nothing wrong in the past. 

Address microaggressions directly

No need to beat around the bush with an employee showing microaggressive behavior. Bring the individual(s) to your office and explain the problem directly. Let them know what they did is wrong, why it’s wrong, and the consequences if they continue. 

The conversation should be cool, calm, and collected, so it doesn’t build more hostility. 

Ask the worker if they have any questions to ensure they understand. Consider enrolling them in a training program if you have one available. 

Reverse mentorship is a great way to help first-time offenders learn more about their improper behavior. An example of this is when you have someone older teach the younger (or vice versa). In this scenario, the mentor can be the person they offended, or someone you know can educate about the issue and how to resolve it — preferably someone who’s similar to the one the culprit offended (age, gender, race, etc.). 

Provide guidelines and tips for managing microaggressions

Don’t just expect workers to know what to do to prevent microaggressions in the workplace. Here’s a quick overview of what that process may look like:

  • Pause to reflect on what you said or did
  • Ask the other person how they feel about the situation 
  • Acknowledge what you did was wrong and apologize
  • Learn and adapt by improving workplace behaviors

It’s an ongoing process that requires learning, understanding, and implementation. 

So, continue to learn about microaggressions and how they evolve over time. Find new training and resources to guide workers in overcoming and preventing these issues when they arise. In time, you’ll find your business becomes a happy and healthy place to work.

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