June 9, 2023

How to challenge microaggressions at work

How to challenge microaggressions at work

Find out what microaggressions in the workplace look like and how you can learn to avoid them.

It’s been proven time and time again that happy teams are more creative and productive, and at most forward-thinking companies, a friendly, casual team culture with plenty of banter is actively encouraged. But what happens when one person’s ‘banter’ is actually making other people feel uncomfortable?

If you’re on social media, you’ll probably have heard the term microaggression before, but if you haven’t, it generally refers to comments and behaviour that are loaded in stereotypes. What lots of people might consider a gentle wind-up can have long-reaching consequences for people. Sometimes these microaggressions come from the unconscious bias we all have, and can be expressed as curiosity, chit-chat or even concern.

What Does Microaggressions Mean?

Contrary to popular belief, a microaggression isn’t something that is small or insignificant. The ‘micro’ in the term refers to the fact it’s happening on an individual level instead of a collective ‘macro’ oppression that minority groups face in society, such as systemic racism.

A microaggression can take many forms, from comments about a person’s appearance, even if meant as a joke or compliment, to outright assumptions about people based on nothing but their identity. Microaggressions create a pressurised, toxic environment for people from minority communities, and can make them feel isolated, unwelcome and unable to freely be themselves. Those impacted by microaggressions at work also have to waste valuable energy managing their reactions in case they’re accused of overreacting or being oversensitive – which in itself can be another microaggression. Quite often, people facing microaggressions in the workplace won’t feel like they can say anything without them impacting the way they’re treated, but this doesn’t mean they don’t mind or that it’s ok.

Common Microaggressions In The Workplace

Whatever your intentions are, there is no place for microaggressions at work.

If you would challenge a colleague who displayed outright discriminatory behaviour, you should also be pulling people up if they:

  • touch people’s hair without permission
  • compare their tans to other people’s skin tones
  • call people articulate
  • try to adopt an accent or vocabulary of another colleague
  • generally spout stereotypes about race, sex, gender, religion or disability
  • ask people where they’re from or when they came to this country
  • assume pronouns
  • continuously mistake two people with a shared identity for each other
  • refuse to pronounce names properly

What To Do About Microaggressions At Work

If you recognise your own behaviour in one or more of the examples above, it’s time to do some work. For example, if you’re curious about where one of your colleagues is really from, ask yourself why you’re so desperate to know? What will you do with that information and how will it impact your working relationship with that person? There are very few answers that can be justified.

The first thing you need to do is address your unconscious bias. Everyone has unconscious bias, through a mixture of what we see in the media, the communities we’ve been raised in and our own life experiences. Most people aren’t aware of it, which is why it can easily cause microaggressions in the workplace.

To be a better employer or colleague, you need to acknowledge your biases and then educate yourself on how to overcome them. Asking friends from minority groups for advice can be helpful and there’s lots of online resources you can work through. However, the most effective thing you can do to challenge microaggressions at work is to implement policies that consider equality, diversity and inclusion in every part of your business.

Hiring a diversity consultant can help your teams become more mindful of their colleagues and help them work through a range of activities designed to make your spaces better places to work. The diversity consultant can also help you work on an EDI strategy and overhaul your current work to eliminate microaggressions and stop future ones occurring. If you don’t know where to start, check out my services and get in touch, I’m happy to help.

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