Creating a workplace that prioritizes inclusion, diversity, and employee well-being requires intentional and ongoing effort by HR, organization leaders, and executives. Learning how to recognize prejudiced and exclusionary behavior in its more subtle forms—called microaggressions— is a critical part of this work.
(Special Note: 501(c) Services and Stefani Coverson, founder and principal of Jamii Pae consulting, an agency specializing in HR and DEI services, hosted the webinar Combating Microaggressions in the Workplace. Watch and learn how to recognize, respond to, and prevent microaggressions at your organization.)
What are microaggressions?
Microaggressions are characterized as indirect, subtle, unintentional, or intentional statements or actions that communicate a hostile or discriminatory message about members of a historically marginalized group.
Oftentimes, a person committing a microaggression is not aware that their words or actions are offensive. Therefore, it is critical for organizations to ensure employees know 1) what microaggressions are and why they are harmful to the person targeted and 2) their responsibility to create a culture of belonging in the workplace.
Examples of microaggressions may include:
- A white person telling a person of color (POC) that they “speak good English”
- A straight person telling a gay person that they “don’t look gay”
- Constantly mispronouncing a person’s name or giving them a “nickname” because their name is “too hard” to pronounce
- Regularly mixing up the names of employees from the same racial/ethnic group
What is implicit bias?
Microaggressions can be the result of implicit bias: attitudes and stereotypes that develop over the course of our lifetime and unconsciously affect our thoughts and actions.
Implicit biases develop over time from exposure to “direct” and “indirect” messages in the world around us.
“Media, schools, and news sources—they all create this lens that we view the world through,” says Stefani Coverson, founder and principal of Jamii Pae consulting, an agency specializing in HR and DEI assessment and implementation services. “Microaggressions are, for the most part, unintentional actions that are grounded in what we have learned through our environment.”
The tricky part about implicit bias is that without intentional work and effort, it can be difficult, to recognize one’s own unconscious prejudices, even if they’re obvious to others. It’s particularly important to understand that everyone has implicit biases—there’s no escaping them.
“A good metaphor for implicit or unconscious bias is to think about why we don’t see our nose on our face when it’s right there,” Coverson says. “It’s right between our eyes but we have to make a conscious decision to notice it and see it’s there because our brain receives millions of stimuli, images, and information every minute so it tunes out and/or automatically categorizes based on what we’ve learned from our environment.”
Who commits microaggressions?
Everyone has implicit biases—which means no one is immune from committing microaggressions.
“We all have a variety of identities, and some of our identities are more dominant or privileged than others,” Coverson says. “Anyone who’s not part of the dominant group can potentially commit microaggressions, and it’s not just about race, it can also be ability, or gender, immigration status, national origin, etc.”
How do microaggressions affect the workplace?
Microaggressions can have massive impacts on the mental health of employees, and on an organization’s ability to retain a diverse workforce.
For example, one study found that “the cumulative ‘day-to-day stress’ caused by microaggressions has been reliably associated with negative physical and emotional health outcomes,” like increased depression and anxiety, and decreased self-esteem.
“Consequently, historically marginalized employees who deal with microaggressions in the workplace won’t stick around,” Coverson says, “they’ll seek work elsewhere—in an environment that feels psychologically and emotionally safe and at an organization that’s committed to inclusion and creating a culture of belonging on all levels.”
“So much of the work that organizations do around diversity is limited to ‘hiring a more diverse workforce,’” Coverson says. “However, microaggressions create a work environment where folks who aren’t of the dominant group don’t want to stay. Microaggressions communicate the message that ‘you’re an outsider and not welcome or valued here.’ So, if you’re recruiting and hiring a diverse workforce and then expecting to retain folks in a work environment that does not foster a culture of belonging and/or where success requires employees from historically marginalized communities to minimize aspects of their identity, that revolving door will keep revolving.”
Leaders of diverse workplaces must be conscious of the experiences of their employees, and intentionally work to create environments that promote inclusion, belonging, and psychological safety for all.
Tune in to the 501(c) Services webinar, Combating Microaggressions in the Workplace, to learn more about how microaggressions manifest in and impact the workplace. Topics include:
- The three types of microaggressions to look out for
- Tips for responding if you’re the target of a microaggression, and how to authentically receive feedback if you commit one
- How employers can prevent and address microaggressions
- How to talk about microaggressions in the workplace
- The impact of microaggressions on your organization’s bottom line
The information contained in this article is not a substitute for legal advice or counsel and has been pulled from multiple sources.