by Shayne Thomas
09 Jul 2020
Microaggressions are Alive and Well in the Workplace
3 tips for fostering conscious diversity and inclusion at work
Anger and frustration are at an all-time high these days.
It’s bad enough that many of us have been cooped up at home—and potentially even put back into lockdown again—as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage on.
But as the world has struggled (no understatement there) to cope with the current health and economic crisis, pre-existing social issues, like systemic racism, have quickly bubbled up to the surface. There is no better example of this than the many Black Lives Matter protests that have popped up across the United States and around the world in response to the brutal death-by-suffocation of George Floyd, inflicted by Minneapolis police officers.
Unfortunately, with every action, there’s always an opposite and equal reaction. A number of counter-protests have emerged as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained steam, uncovering the troubling reality that systemic racism has always been alive and well in the U.S. since the country’s founding, in spite of slavery being abolished after the Civil War.
While much of this fight for justice and equality is happening in the streets in plain daylight, racist and other forms of discriminatory undercurrents continue to permeate all aspects of daily life in the U.S. The workplace is no exception to this rule.
The challenge of combatting discrimination in the workplace
Over the last decade, conversations about diversity and inclusion in the workplace have become rather commonplace. But those conversations didn’t just materialize out of nowhere. They were a direct response to a serious lack of workplace diversity and inclusion or, even worse, both direct and indirect acts of discrimination and bias.
There’s, unfortunately, no amount of talk about diversity and inclusion that can move the needle permanently. In 2019, Glassdoor conducted a Diversity and Inclusion Study of 1,100 employees and found that 61% have witnessed or experienced workplace discrimination based on age, race, gender, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation.
Discrimination is still alive and well in the workplace. No way around it. While blatant acts of racism and discrimination may now be few and far between—thanks, in part, to many companies implementing “zero tolerance” policies—there are these little things called “microaggressions” that allow discrimination to continue simmering below the surface. Even if those verbal or physical actions are being done in completely unconscious ways.
What is a microaggression?
There are a lot of definitions for microaggressions out there, but this one caught my eye:
“Microaggressions are defined as ‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to marginalized individuals and groups.’ The ‘micro’ in microaggression refers to person-to-person interactions, while ‘macro’ refers to systemic racism. Systemic racism includes social structure and institutions.
Racial microaggressions are constant stings and barbs. They negatively impact job satisfaction, self-esteem, and mental health issues of your black employees. They can also impact physical health.”
Microaggressions can play out in a lot of ways, some that may seem harmless at face value. For example, touching a Black person’s hair, with or without consent, or saying “that’s so gay” can be seen as threatening or demeaning, whether or not there was any negative intent whatsoever.
There are also different dimensions to microaggressions worth noting:
- Microassaults: These are acts that are knowingly racist or discriminatory. The best example of this is someone knowingly making a joke at the expense of a minority group and then attempting to brush it off or justify it as “harmless.” Another example is by purposely ignoring or not engaging with a colleague because of that person’s race, sexual orientation, religion, and even gender. In other words, microassaults are unabashed forms of discrimination that have no place in the workplace.
- Microinsults: These are conscious or unconscious verbal and non-verbal behaviors that are just plainly insensitive. An example of this is asking a new employee aged 55+ how they got their job—with the subtext potentially being, “How did you get your job when there are so many other qualified younger candidates out there?” Whether this was the intent or not is beside the question; if it caused that employee to do a double-take when asked that question, then the implied meaning rang loud and clear.
- Microinvalidations: These are forms of communication that, as you would guess, seek to ignore or overlook the presence of a minority colleague. The real harm with these is that the offenders of microinvalidations oftentimes deny their discriminatory tendencies, denying any criticism that they are racist, sexist, ageist, or homophobic. This is a perfect case of unconscious bias in action; while the person doesn’t see themselves as discriminatory, their day-to-day actions say otherwise without them realizing it.
Whatever the form of microaggression may be, it poses a real threat to an employee’s success and happiness within a company. Step into someone else’s shoes for a moment. If you had to constantly justify “why you belong” or your value on a team because you might be a little different than the cookie-cutter mold of your team, you would quickly find that your day-to-day experience at work would be vastly different than, say, those of your white, straight, 30- to 40-something male colleagues.
Just imagine if you had to go into work every day with your defenses up. Or if you were not able to be your “full self” the minute you stepped into the office. That is weight on your shoulders. And unfortunately, unless you have been at the other end of a discriminatory joke or have been bullied in some way because you were, for all intents and purposes, different than the people around you, there’s a good chance you’re blissfully unaware of your privilege.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t change or be an ally to those who need your support.
A few long-term solutions for nipping microaggressions in the bud
As a starting point, whether you’re the person being intimidated or bullied or simply someone who has no patience for discrimination and racism, in all its forms, it’s important to speak up in the moment when you feel that someone has crossed the line.
This doesn’t mean you need to start a screaming match with your colleagues. Instead, stay cool, calm, and collected and bring it out into the open by saying, “What did you mean by that?” Simply calling it out—and in front of your other colleagues—makes it clear that an act was inappropriate or offensive.
However, by responding to these acts in the form of a question, you engage the person, who again may not even realize what they’ve done, in a conversation that helps them see why their words or actions were offensive. It gives you (or your ally) an opportunity to help that person understand why their actions were threatening and harmful.
It also gives that person an opportunity to own up, apologize, and clear the air on the spot. That’s the best-case scenario—and it works wonders with people who are honestly oblivious.
Now, there’s always that chance that you’ll get pushback. The people being called out may call you “overly sensitive” or say that you’re “not able to take a joke.” This is when allies really need to step in and support their minority colleagues. Because the more the offending person can see how their actions have created a hostile atmosphere—for more than just the minority employee—the more likely they’ll become mindful of their words and actions down the road.
If that doesn’t work, you can’t be afraid to escalate the issue to HR. After all, the longer you let certain behaviors persist, the more “acceptable” and tolerated they will become.
As a company, however, there’s a lot you can to do tackle this head-on, including:
- Build a company culture around diversity and inclusion
This doesn’t mean talking about it more, it means putting real and meaningful change into action. It means having a more diverse recruiting and hiring strategy. It means checking unconscious bias at the door (or putting in the hard work and training to help employees learn how to do that).
It also means embracing inclusion at all levels of the company, from senior leaders down, and hiring leaders and managers that mirror the people they manage. It’s about giving people visibility and creating a safe space where everyone can do the job they were hired to do—and beyond—without fear. And lastly, it’s about treating people equal and not tolerating anything less.
- Make diversity and sensitivity training mandatory and ongoing
We all have our own baggage. But sometimes we need to either leave it at home or figure out how to unpack some of it. This is especially the case with overcoming tendencies toward unconscious bias.
The best way to do this is by implementing training and learning programs that help employees on this journey. It’s not a “one and done” type of thing here but rather a continuous learning process. Many companies today require their employees to take mandatory sensitivity training, and then once they’ve checked the box, it’s done. One course isn’t going to drive the kind of change you seek or do very much to shift the behaviors of the biggest offenders in your company. This must be an ongoing process that helps employees examine and overcome all of the dimensions of racism and discrimination. Just like going to the gym, learning to overcome unconscious bias or understanding what microaggressions at the workplace look like—as well as their impact on everyone around you—is a muscle that needs to be trained. Over and over again.
- Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations
Change doesn’t happen by being quiet. If you want to foster a more diverse, inclusive, and non-aggressive workplace, you need to create a space where all voices can be heard (for the good and the bad). Engage employees in open forums to discuss the issues and challenges that minority groups regularly face—and invite them to provide insights and feedback into how you, as leaders, can implement positive change for the future.
The big takeaway here is that it shouldn’t just be about talking but also about taking action. Listen to your employees. Then take that feedback to create a stronger, happier, and more productive workplace. Your employees are your strongest assets; let them be the fuel that empowers you to make positive and lasting change.
At Cornerstone, we walk the walk
We all have opportunities to grow and improve. No one and no company is perfect. But we believe in practicing what we preach. This was made abundantly clear when Cornerstone CEO, Adam Miller published his open letter on race and bias in the workplace. While we already do a lot to create a safe, diverse, and inclusive workplace for all of our employees, there’s always an opportunity to do better. And given the current circumstances in the U.S. and around the world, we’re seizing this as a golden opportunity to do just that.
Sure, we can talk a lot about why diversity and inclusion is so important—and why any sort of discrimination in the workplace should never be tolerated—but we also take meaningful action on what we believe. We encourage you to do the same, too. The world is not an easy place right now; however, if we all do our part to make it better, we can be the change we seek.
If you want to learn more about how to nip microaggressions in the workplace in the bud, our team can help. We’re ready to help you create a more diverse and inclusive workplace today.