The world of work is changing rapidly, with many companies abandoning outdated, inflexible approaches to strengthen their stances on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Minority communities have ridden the wave of these rapid changes, but many acknowledge there is still a long way to go before the community finds complete inclusion.
According to recent studies, nearly half of LGBTQIA+ people in the workforce have experienced some level of unfair treatment at work in their lifetime. Of those surveyed, 38% report having experienced harassment, and approximately one in four black and Latino workers report some form of harassment or unequal treatment in the workplace.
Part of this unfair treatment and harassing behavior comes from microaggressions. These are subtle yet harmful actions or utterances that, though not as blatant as outright aggressive harassment, still inflict damage on the target.
While improving DEI in the workplace is the focus of many companies, especially since the call for social reform in 2020, the goal remains elusive for many companies that either are unaware of the harm caused by microaggressions or don’t believe that microaggressions are an issue.
Innocent or Intentional?
Most successful business leaders and HR professionals agree that a diverse workforce leads to a stronger talent pool overall. People who are supported and included as their authentic selves in their workplace are more likely to develop new ideas, stay with the company, and produce laudable work. Microaggressions that crop up within a workplace can dilute this positive diversity, creating an environment tinged with tension, even if the microaggressions are from people who do not harbor ill intentions. Often, well-intentioned peers who carry biases or beliefs let those beliefs seep into interactions, creating an environment where microaggressions can run rampant.
Originally coined in 1970, the term “microaggression” was initially developed to describe the subtle insults and dismissive behavior directed toward the black community. It has since grown to encompass other minority communities, such as the LGBTQIA+ community, the disabled, religious or nonreligious groups, women, the elderly, and immigrant groups.
Microaggressions are not limited to speech but can be found in actions and environmental aspects, as well. Holiday displays that are limited to the celebrations of one group, a lack of diverse leadership, or marketing within a company that features only heterosexual, nondisabled white people can be examples of environmental microaggressions.
Identifying and Eliminating
For many people who are not part of a minority group, identifying microaggressions can be challenging. For one, there is a long-held and outdated mentality that groups identifying microaggressions in the workplace are being “too sensitive” in a world gone “woke.”
Microaggressive comments can also become part of people’s vernacular without their realizing how discriminatory it truly is. It’s up to leadership to identify these microaggressions and work toward effectively minimizing or eliminating them; managers and CEOs should want their employees to feel safe, seen, and heard in their workplace. Inappropriate behavior should be called out when witnessed, or, if the behavior is brought to the manager’s attention, it should be swiftly addressed.
In this new world of work, microaggressions can no longer be swept under the proverbial rug. Instead, they must be considered just as toxic and harmful as blatant discriminatory behavior. Some examples of microaggressions that are likely often used without a second thought include:
- “Where are you really from?” Assuming someone in an ethnic or a racial minority isn’t “really” from where the person grew up.
- “You don’t look black/Jewish/Hispanic.” This statement assumes all people of an ethnic or a racial background have a stereotypical look.
- “Some of my best friends are gay.” This is meant to say that the speaker should be immune from accusations of bias because the speaker has gay friends.
- “Is that your real hair?” Questions like this are typically directed toward black women and show a deep misunderstanding of black culture.
Recent research shows that despite some complaints that the world has become far too sensitive to innocent comments, microaggressions can negatively affect mental and physical health. They can also negatively impact career trajectory, company culture, and retention.
It would be unwise for modern employers to dismiss the negative impact of microaggressive behavior. Initiatives toward fostering and improving DEI in the workplace should include education and attention paid to microaggressions.
Moving Forward without Microaggressions
It is up to companies to be proactive in educating their workforce about issues pertaining to DEI, as well as to be more comprehensive in their training and education efforts regarding DEI in the workplace. Microaggressions should be a part of any conversation regarding inclusion and eliminating discriminatory behavior.
Companies operating with an old-school mentality may have the most challenging time shifting gears or identifying microaggressions. This is not to say they shouldn’t take on the challenge or make it a priority. As leaders, learning to be more intentional with language sets an excellent example for employees and sets a foundation for effective diversity and inclusion initiatives. Awareness of the issue is always the first step toward solving problem behavior.
If employees are experiencing microaggressions, they should not respond with anger but with thoughtfulness. It is important not to assume someone is being malicious; rather, the person may just be coming from a place of ignorance. The goal should always be to understand and educate microaggressors, who are likely unaware of their ignorance. Even though it should not be the job of the discriminated-against employees to perform the emotional labor of teaching everyone in their office about microaggressions, their choice of response can go a long way toward bettering the environment for everyone going forward.
The more information shared about the realities of microaggressions, the better companies can build solid policies and educational opportunities for their employees. With improved awareness, a culture of accepted microaggressions in the workplace can be changed for the better.
Wynne Nowland is the CEO of Bradley & Parker.