How to properly address microaggressions at work
We all want to feel safe at work. But many of us end up feeling uncomfortable or hurt because of microaggressions. Intentional or unintentional, these actions can have a significant impact on our engagement and overall well-being. They usually come in the form of seemingly innocent comments by someone who might be unaware of the impact their words have on a colleague.
Microaggressions still exist, even when we’re no longer sharing the same physical space. But they can take on new forms. Now that so many of us are logging onto work from our couches or offices or kitchen tables, microaggressions can look different, but they are still equally harmful. To be able to best deal with them, it helps to be able to identify them in all forms.
Microaggressions fit into one of three categories: Microassault (an explicit racial derogation), Microinsult (communication that conveys rudeness and demeans a person’s racial heritage or identity), or Microinvalidation (communication that excludes or negates the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group).
Many microaggressions are nonverbal, so they can be subtle. Our facial expressions can convey our feelings and thoughts. Seeing another person’s facial expressions can change how we show up. A close counterpart to facial expressions is body language. A few key pieces of body language to keep in mind in avoiding microaggressions are closed body language and dominant power positioning.
Employees impacted by microaggressions don’t always feel safe expressing their true thoughts and experiences. It might make them feel uncomfortable, or fearful of retribution for speaking out. Creating space in which open conversations are encouraged, where employees can feel psychologically safe and protected from microaggressions, should be the starting point.
Empowering your people to express their opinions and concerns without fear of being ridiculed is a critical step in identifying microaggressions. You also need to make sure that anyone who stands up to courageously share something regarding themself should be recognized and encouraged. Show them you appreciate their viewpoint and uniqueness.
Microaggressions typically come from a place of ignorance. You will need to encourage open and candid conversations in which the aggressor and target can share their version of events. Predetermined scripts can make this process much easier by including carefully worded statements. This simple tool can help avoid an even worse situation with a new series of slipups or slights.
Storytelling can be another powerful way to evoke emotions and enable people to see how hurtful an off-the-cuff comment can be to their colleagues. The stories shared help educate employees who might be unfamiliar with microaggressions. They also remove the ignorance that microaggressions need to thrive, so you can begin building a culture of empathy in your workplace.
When anyone reports a microaggression, there needs to be a plan in place that documents how to move forward, learn, and improve. The plan should be published on the company’s own intranet and communicated to everyone throughout the organization. Every employee should know how to report a microaggression, and every manager should know how to deal with and resolve the issue.
Resolving conflict should be seen as a learning opportunity to unpack and understand why the situation occurred and what individuals can do to prevent this from happening in the future. In addition, the process should be seen as an opportunity for the entire organization to learn and celebrate our differences and unique perspectives, and break down communication barriers.
If someone commits a microaggression, pause for a moment and take a few deep breaths. This helps to calm you and allow you to think rationally, rather than reacting emotionally. Ask yourself what you want to achieve by responding to this person. Discuss the incident with the individual involved directly. You may want to request a private conversation with them to avoid further attention.
Once you have discussed the incident with the individual, allow yourself to move on from the issue. If HR was not present for your conversation with the individual involved, send an email to them summarizing the incident and ask that it be placed in the individual’s file.
The ideal way to combat workplace microaggressions is for employers to educate their workforce against these behaviors before they happen.