You are sitting in a department meeting and notice the boss always dismisses your ideas in front of everyone but later adopts them and gives credit to someone else. When you bring it to his attention you are told to not be so “angry” and act more like a “team player.” At review time, promotions are announced, and you are passed over for a junior colleague. 

If this happened to you, would you feel you were treated unfairly? How would you handle it? Would you confront your boss, report it to the company’s human resources department (HR), leave or do nothing?

Now imagine you’re my friend May, an older woman of color.  May knew her boss’ behaviors were racist, sexist and ageist but she wasn’t sure if he was aware of it. She knew, though, for her own mental and emotional health and professional growth she needed to take action, and she did.

The behaviors May was dealing with are called microaggressions. The term was first created by a Harvard professor in the 1970s to describe racist behaviors against black Americans but it has since been expanded to its current definition to include discriminatory behavior against other identities including but not limited to other people of color, women, LGBTQ+, and older individuals. The behaviors can be overt but are often subtle and may be committed unconsciously by people who are unaware of their own biases.

Workplace microaggressions typically fall into three categories: environmental, behavioral or verbal. Environmental microaggressions are institutional acts that make a group of people feel invalidated. On a university campus it is the naming of all buildings after white males. In an office, it is the lack of diversity in the workplace, company or industry. Behavioral microaggressions are actions or symbols in the workplace that display insensitivity to a particular group typically marginalized by society. It can be as subtle as a racist cartoon displayed in someone’s office or a last-minute company-wide retreat that does not take childcare issues into consideration. Verbal microaggressions are insensitive comments, slights, or insults which imply something negative about a person’s background. When someone says, “I’m colorblind,” they imply they do not see the other person’s race or appreciate their lived experience. Asking a person of Asian descent where they are from implies questioning whether they are American. The person asking may not intend these comments as insults, but they are.

If not addressed, microaggressions add up over time. They create a hostile work environment, which takes a toll on people’s productivity and professional growth. If you are the target of microaggressions, your physical and mental health can be impacted too. Practice self-defense and prioritize your safety. Use the following strategies to address microaggressions:

Document the offending statement. Write down when, where, with whom, the offense occurred or act as soon as possible after it occurs. Write a note and email it to yourself so it has a date and time stamp on it. Create a file for your recordings and keep it on a personal device and not your work computer. This way you create a record you can refer to instead of depending on your memory if you decide to confront the person or report the action to HR. The act of recording what you experienced can also help you better understand how you feel about it and what you want to do next. In certain situations, recording can help you realize that you’re not alone in experiencing this type of aggression.

Confront it at the moment. Addressing microaggression the moment it occurs can provide immediate resolution; however, it could be risky, especially if it involves unconscious bias or happens in front of others. The person you accuse may respond by getting defensive. If it’s a group of people perpetrating the behavior, directly confronting them could escalate it. It will depend on your relationship with the person who committed the offense and the specific situation.

In private. If you approach an individual in private to discuss their offending behavior, they may disagree about the details, but they also might stop. Call the behavior offensive, not the person. Name the behavior, tell them how it affected you, and tell them how to resolve it–with an apology and an end to the behavior. This might even strengthen your relationship with that person when they see you talked to them rather than reporting them to a superior or HR.

Report it. In more severe cases of discrimination or harassment, or when someone’s aggressive behavior causes you fear, go to HR. Start by making a general appointment and ask for information on the topic of the behavior. Speak in general terms, no specifics. Only ask for guidance or suggestions once you are comfortable with their response. HR personnel should be trained in microaggression management, but not all companies are up to date.

Microaggressions affect everyone in the workplace by creating a toxic environment. If you are not the target, you benefit by preventing or stopping them from occurring. Become an ally in the workplace by taking the following steps:

  • Educate yourself on the different types of microaggressions.

  • Examine your own biases and prejudices.

  • Advocate for others when you see microaggressions in the workplace. Speak out directly when you witness actions or see symbols in the workplace that are offensive and provide written or behavioral support to persons targeted.

  • Ask for company-wide training about what microaggressions are, how they cause harm, and how to avoid them.

If you are the person accused of committing a microaggression, pause before you respond. You may not have meant to offend someone, but you did. Sometimes the best thing to do is listen, apologize, and do better next time. Accept your colleague’s perceptions and don’t get defensive or play devil’s advocate. You may not have intended to offend someone, but you did. Impact matters. Don’t expect the offended person to educate you; do some work and try to understand the experiences of others who differ from you. Reach out to HR and learn how to be compliant with your workplace diversity, equity and inclusion policies. If they don’t have any yet, ask for some. It may save you your job in the long term. We are all always learning, and that is okay.

Take care, stay safe.


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