The saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is popular because it emphasizes that physical abuse lasts longer than verbal abuse. But words do hurt. Microaggressions are everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults that communicate hostile, derogatory, or harmful messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. Microaggressions are often subtler than explicit racism or sexism, but they can be equally destructive and are particularly pernicious because they can be so easy to communicate without conscious intent.
Microaggressions are damaging because they’re often framed as compliments or well-meaning statements but actually imply something negative about someone else’s identity. They are delivered with enough pressure to make someone feel uncomfortable—but not enough to make it clear there was anything wrong with what was said or done. Over time, microaggressions can make workers in a multicultural environment feel isolated or even hopeless when they don’t get support from managers when addressing discriminatory behavior at work. It also causes them to question their place in an organization where even simple things like posting pictures of friends on your desk invites comments from others about how that doesn’t look diverse.
If you’re like most people, you probably recognize what microaggressions are not—in other words, what they don’t look like. But if you can identify what they are—even just one or two that resonate with you—it becomes easier to identify microaggressions in your workplace.
Here are a few common types of microaggressions
Slights: These happen all too often at work, but sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint why something felt so offensive. These usually go back to assumptions or other stereotypes about a group of people. They can be as overt as asking someone where they were born or as subtle as expecting an employee to take on extra responsibilities because she is a woman. You could also think of slights as offenses that seem innocuous when said out loud but add up over time for employees who experience them frequently.
Internalized Microaggressions: It’s essential to recognize how these manifest themselves in our own actions. Perhaps there is an assumption made about how men vs. women talk in meetings, which makes women less likely to speak up for fear of being reprimanded by their colleagues.
The Problem of Not Having Policies That Allow Employees to Confront Discomfort
Unfortunately, many workplaces aren’t set up to foster conversations around discomfort. A few avenues may allow a single person or small group of employees to express concerns directly with management, but most environments aren’t set up for confronting discomfort between coworkers – especially if those comments offend others. Even more concerning is that some companies actually discourage confrontation – going as far as having policies against it – even though research shows accountability drives increased retention rates and promotes higher performance overall.
Attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent in today’s global, multicultural, multiracial workforce can be challenging. But a critical aspect of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is encouraging employees to feel empowered to speak up when something doesn’t seem fair or right—whether that means pointing out when an employee isn’t getting fair treatment or making sure that coworkers understand that microaggressions and everyday workplace discrimination are never okay.
Managing Microaggressions When They Happen
Microaggressions have been shown to have negative physical and psychological effects on recipients, including increased stress levels. Companies must ensure employees have the proper training to handle these situations quickly before toxic relationships take root among coworkers.
One important aspect of diversity and inclusion in the workplace is encouraging employees to feel empowered to speak up when something doesn’t seem fair or right. If you notice something, say something! That’s not only how emergency drills work—it’s also a good way to ensure that your company culture embraces different perspectives. And it could mean standing up for yourself if you face microaggressions from colleagues who don’t want to accept difference.
This includes providing employee training that addresses how to deal with microaggressions and everyday workplace discrimination and how to navigate complex situations without becoming overly emotional or defensive while also ensuring that your organization doesn’t discriminate against its own multiracial workforce. Unfortunately, there are few resources to help people do this—and many people don’t even realize there’s an issue.
One way to empower your employees is to give them a safe space in which they can manage microaggressions when they happen. If an employee is offended by another worker’s comment, you should encourage them to discuss it privately with that person. During your monthly meetings, you can include an activity where employees anonymously write down examples of microaggressions they experience daily. Then, take time for everyone to share their comments as a group. These exercises will help make microaggressions part of everyday conversation—and help address them from earlier stages in your organization.
It’s also critical to involve leaders in these conversations. After each example, ask each leader how they would respond if something similar happened at their team level. Consider including these teachable moments in your training program to develop inclusive leadership across your company culture. Remember: You don’t have to fire people for minor offenses like microaggressions, but creating awareness around how offensive language affects others often has more impact than punishing someone who says something inappropriate. The goal here isn’t simply remediation; it’s changing behavior into one that benefits both employers and employees alike through increased communication and understanding of cultural differences.
It isn’t always easy, but everyone needs to be involved if companies are going to diversify effectively. Be wary of situations where diversity programs feel forced or tokenistic instead of making real progress toward workplace equality across all departments. Encourage your entire workforce—not just upper management—to embrace diversity efforts, so everyone feels empowered enough to step up for change.
Given that diversity programs can take years before delivering results, having allies who support diversity initiatives right from the start is essential. These individuals can be invaluable advocates for change by helping new staff integrate into existing teams and encouraging new ideas that enhance organizational diversity efforts. Whether through training sessions focused on diversity and inclusion topics, employee resource groups, or one-on-one conversations, creating opportunities for sharing creates a safe space for everyone to feel included. This helps staff understand how they fit into a multiracial workforce and encourages them to bring more of themselves into work each day. These efforts also send a strong message about expected behavior throughout your organization: It’s important to respect people’s differences while treating others fairly regardless of race/ethnicity, gender identity/expression, religion/spirituality, disability status, or sexual orientation/gender identity.
So, let’s work together to spread awareness about everyday discrimination and empower employees to speak up when they see something happening.
Let’s change lives together!