As organizations seek to create more inclusive work environments, more leaders are tackling the issue of microaggressions in the workplace. Starting conversations around microaggressions can be uncomfortable and daunting, but there are ways to approach the subject that simultaneously honor the harm microaggressions cause and empathize with those who are learning to be more inclusive.
It’s important to look at microaggressions as something to be managed, not overcome. They are the product of natural human biases, and it isn’t possible to simply catalog and eliminate them all. What you can do is build strategies to bring workplace microaggressions to light, empowering your team to mitigate them constructively.
Breaking It Down: What Constitutes a Microaggression?
The term “microaggression” can be triggering because of the moral associations we connect with it. The “aggression” aspect seems to imply malicious intent. The truth is that people who commit microaggressions rarely mean to do so. It’s helpful to think of microaggressions as actions that unintentionally exclude marginalized groups. They are the small, normalized actions that slowly erode marginalized people’s ability to feel safe and equal at work.
It might seem counterintuitive that an action can be both hurtful and unintentional. To illustrate how that can happen, here is a true-life example. Jogging close to home, a Black professional was roughly detained by police with guns drawn, thrown into a cell, and left there for four hours without being told why. It was obviously a case of mistaken identity, but he did not feel he could speak up until the police came to that realization on their own. Many men who look like him have been killed for being perceived as resisting arrest.
The next week, he received an email at work about the upcoming Jail “n” Bail fundraiser. The idea behind this “hilarious” fundraiser was to arrest people and urge coworkers to donate money to bail them out. He didn’t want to participate for obvious reasons. After his co-workers had hounded him for a few days and he was forced to respond definitively, he explained to them how traumatizing the event would be and how devastating mass incarceration has been for the African American community in general. They were flabbergasted; their only intention had been to raise money for a good cause.
This is how a microaggression usually works: no harm is intended, and yet harm is still done. Frequent yet subtle, microaggressions necessitate a change in thinking to reveal and manage. Here are three ways to begin making that mindset shift.
1. Examine Actions Happening Around You
Record all of your work activities for a day and think about how people from different social groups might experience these activities differently. You may find that there are habits that keep certain people on the margins. If you work virtually with people in other countries, do you start meetings chatting about things others may not know much about, like American sports or T.V. shows? This is an excellent example of how a noble intention — team building by engaging in small talk — can subtly send the message of, “You don’t belong here.”
Another very common workplace scenario is that women are the only people called upon to do basic housekeeping or organize food for meetings and celebrations. There is a cultural norm of “Women just like doing that kind of stuff.” Consider how being asked to cater a meeting might feel to a woman hoping to ascend to a leadership position in your organization.
2. Reevaluate Your Environments
Few of us take time to assess how inclusive our workspaces are beyond ensuring there are basic accommodations in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But on closer inspection, you may find there are physical workspaces around you that favor particular ability groups. One example would be a meeting room with bolted-down chairs, where differently abled people literally can’t have a seat at the table. Most of us innocently take for granted our ability to settle into a chair and present our ideas as equals.
Similarly, men who rarely think about becoming victims of sexual violence may hardly even notice how dark the parking lot is at night or think about how frightening that can be for women co-workers. Or, art on the office walls that romanticize southern plantation life might completely escape the notice of some people but be offensive to African American employees descended from slaves. This is where it helps to intentionally look at your environment from a marginalized person’s perspective.
3. Question Policies
Some policies we think are efficient can actually be alienating to some groups. For example, application forms and human resources (HR) paperwork are frequently exclusive. Think about it — one of the first things a prospective employee is often asked to do is identify as male or female. Doing so can undermine your organization’s ability to attract and retain gender non-conforming, intersex, nonbinary, and transgender team members. Another famous offender is the “must be able to lift 50 pounds” requirement in job descriptions. Unless it is truly needed, it can compromise an organization’s ability to attract people from different age groups and ability statuses.
It is also critical to your inclusion effort that you examine your company’s policies surrounding remote work and flexible hours. Accessibility advocates have been telling us for years how productive virtual team members can be, and the pandemic has proven it to be true. Needlessly inflexible work arrangements can exclude people with young children or with different ability statuses from reaching the same potential as other employees.
Rooting Out Microaggressions Is a Super Skill
To manage microaggressions effectively, you have to become a good ally not only to groups to whom harm is done but also to those who unintentionally exclude others. The ideal workplace provides a safe space for everyone to grow, including those who are initially defensive about having to change their habits. Often, defensiveness comes from a core desire to do good and the anxiety that comes when we are asked to think differently. Like all diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work, managing microaggressions takes humility and patience.