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How to deal with microaggressions in the workplace

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Building an inclusive workplace culture takes work. And it’s not just HR teams that are responsible. Every employee has the power to positively contribute to a work culture that values diversity, equity and inclusion.

The business case for an inclusive work culture is strong. An inclusive culture creates a safe environment for all employees to thrive. This translates into business growth. 

According to the Diversity and Inclusion Global Market Report, inclusive teams are over 35% more productive and earn 2.5 times higher cash flow per employee.  

A powerful way organisations can build a more inclusive work environment is to get educated about microaggressions and share this awareness with employees.  

Microaggressions are subtle behaviours and interactions that communicate bias toward marginalised groups. 

There are many types of microaggressions and several ways you can recognise and respond to microaggressions at work to help build a healthier culture. Read on to learn more. 

What are microaggressions? 

A microaggression is an everyday snub, insult, or behaviour that negatively targets a marginalised group. 

Microaggressions can be intentional and unintentional. A person responsible for a microaggression may be trying to deliver a compliment, engage in an unconscious action or speak without thinking (thoughtless comments).  

Sometimes, someone is simply curious about a person and their background but their questions fall into microaggressive territory. 

Whether intentional or unintentional, microaggressions can impact an individual’s mental health by hurting their feelings, diminishing their confidence, making them feel excluded and reinforcing barriers and biases. 

Microaggressions can be: 

  • Verbal: A comment or question that is hurtful or stigmatising. 
  • Behavioural: Acting in a way that is discriminatory or otherwise hurtful. 
  • Environmental: Discrimination through environmental design.

There are three types of microaggressions as defined by Dr Derald Wing Sue and colleagues and outlined in Medical News Today

  • Microassaults: When a person intentionally behaves in a discriminatory way while not intending to be offensive. An example is telling a racist joke, then saying, “I was just joking.”
  • Microinsults: A comment or action that is unintentionally discriminatory. For example, assuming a person from a different cultural background is uneducated or behaves in a certain way. 
  • Microinvalidations: When a person’s comment invalidates or undermines the experiences of a marginalised group. This could be denying the suffering of a community or invalidating concerns as they are raised. 

What are some examples of microaggressions at work?

There are many types of microaggressions. Diversity advocacy groups in Canada launched a Micropedia of Microaggressions to document different types of microaggressions. It’s a fantastic resource for those looking to understand different types of microaggressions. 

Microaggressions can be targeted toward a range of people. Some examples include: 

  • Acting surprised when a person from a different ethnic background speaks fluent English.  
  • Asking people from the LGBTQ+ community personal details about their relationships. 
  • Assuming a person with a chronic illness cannot do their job. 

Karina Guerra, Group General Manager of Customer Intelligence and Marketing at Xref is an Australian citizen originally from Mexico. Karina shares that in her experience, most questions and statements that could be construed as offensive come from a legitimate curiosity or desire to engage in a conversation with her.

Karina has noticed that in workplaces with strong diversity and inclusion programs, people seem to be more aware of jokes or comments that sound discriminatory. In general, Karina loves being asked about her culture and is always pleased when questions and comments come from a place that celebrates inclusion rather than exclusion.   

How to minimise microaggression in the workplace 

Minimising microaggressions at work starts with awareness and education. 

Organisations don’t need to wait for initiatives from the Government or outside intervention to begin tackling microaggressions. Learning more about the topic and educating team members can start at any time. 

To begin minimising microaggressions at work, take steps to educate employees and teach them how to address instances when they pop up. 

By creating and facilitating dialogue around microaggressions, you create a company culture where everyone can work together to foster a healthier and more inclusive workplace. 

How to address microaggressions in the workplace  

When it comes to addressing microaggressions, respect is key. Respect for yourself and others. 

It’s important to teach employees it is okay to give and receive feedback about microaggressions. 

Employees should feel empowered to call out microaggressions and to respond if they engage in a behaviour that falls into microaggressive territory. 

If you have committed a microaggression you can: 

  • Listen to what the person you’ve hurt has to say. 
  • Remember intent does not negate impact. 
  • Offer a genuine apology without trying to make excuses. 
  • Work to learn from the experience and prevent a repeated action. 
  • Get curious about other people’s experience of the world and remain open to, and grateful for feedback. 

Leaders can set the tone by sharing their stories of committing and/or receiving microaggressions and how they overcame these scenarios. 

By holding themselves and those around them accountable, leaders can help create a culture where it’s safe to call out microaggressions and take accountability for committing them. 

Final thoughts 

Groups of people with different cultures and backgrounds enrich the workplace. Everyone brings different angles and points of view. It’s important to create a safe, strong and diverse work culture by cultivating an inclusive environment where everyone feels included instead of excluded. 

Diversity in the workplace enhances employee experience. A safe workplace also fosters strong employee engagement as your people feel safe to be themselves and share ideas, ultimately culminating in stronger business outcomes. 

Microaggressions are acts that can make people feel excluded. By creating and raising awareness around microaggressions in the workplace you can continue to build a work culture that values diversity, inclusion and equity. A workplace that lets employees shine and thrive at work, celebrating differences as well as similarities, is going to be more productive, have better retention, and foster a more enjoyable working environment

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