Workplace discrimination of any kind is a big deal, and it’s unfortunately prevalent. About 61% of Americans have experienced or witnessed workplace discrimination of some kind. One type of workplace discrimination that might be slipping under your radar is microaggressions.
Microaggressions are widespread in the workplace: 26% of American workers have definitely experienced a microaggression at work, and 36% have witnessed one. Unfortunately, only 29% of those who experience workplace microaggressions actually report it, so these numbers could be much higher.
With such a prevalent problem, what can you do to deal with microaggression in the workplace? We’re going to look at types of microaggressions, what they look like and what they could be doing to your team members. Finally, let's understand what is your role in helping, and strategies for rooting out microaggressions in your workplace.
To start, what is a microaggression? A microaggression is any statement or action that conveys discrimination against a marginalized group. What gets tricky about microaggressions is that they’re not always intentional discrimination against someone. Microaggressions can be indirect, subtle, and even unintentional. That doesn’t mean they’re not incredibly damaging (but we’ll look at that in more detail shortly).
There are three main types of microaggressions:
- Verbal. Most microaggressions are verbal comments. In the workplace, this is often between employees. One person makes a comment to another (and whether intentional or not) that comment is discriminatory.
- Nonverbal. Actions can also be microaggressions. Cutting someone off, interrupting someone, or deliberately ignoring someone can all be nonverbal microaggressions that make someone feel uncomfortable at work.
- Environmental. The very way your workplace is set up (or where it’s located) could be microaggressions. These might include having no women or people of color in leadership roles. It could also be naming the conference rooms solely after white men. Or it could be creating an environment that’s hard for someone with a disability to access.
All of these microaggressions are harmful, no matter the form they take.
Examples of Microaggressions in the Workplace
To really understand microaggressions at work, we’re going to go over some examples. Here are five examples of microaggressions that could be happening in your workplace:
- Racial microaggressions. The term microaggressions was actually coined in 1970 to describe racial microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are comments or actions that might be unconsciously racist. Some of these actions might be intended as compliments, but the impact is hurtful. These might include, but are not limited to:
- Asking a Black coworker if their hair is “naturally that way”
- Asking an Asian coworker for help with math because “they must be good at it”
- Complimenting a person of color on their “grasp of English”
- Asking someone, “Where are you actually from?”
- Gender-based microaggressions. Women are also a marginalized group that can be on the receiving end of sexist microaggressions. Again, some might be intended as a compliment, but the impact is instead harmful. These are some examples of gender-based microaggressions:
- Interrupting a woman speaking during a meeting
- Calling your female boss “hysterical” when she reacts to something
- Telling a woman in STEM she might be in the wrong room when she walks in
- Telling a female coworker that they “look so young” (this only reinforces an emphasis on her appearance and undermines her credentials)
- LGBTQIA+ microaggressions. Members of the LGBTQIA+ community also, unfortunately, experience microaggressions at work. In fact, about one-third of LGBTQIA+ individuals experience microaggressions at work. These are some examples:
- Telling a coworker you can’t “tell that they’re trans”
- Telling a coworker they “don’t look gay”
- Never using or acknowledging someone’s preferred pronouns
- Offering to set up a lesbian coworker with another lesbian woman you know
- Disability microaggressions. Disability can come in so many forms, and not all forms of disability are visible. In fact, about 13% of Americans have some kind of disability, so there are probably more people than you might think at your workplace. These are some disability microaggressions that might crop up:
- Telling someone it’s “inspiring how they’ve overcome their disability”
- Assuming someone with a disability needs help completing a basic task
- Telling someone they “don’t look disabled”
- Age microaggressions. People over age 50 can also experience discrimination in the workplace. In an AARP survey from 2022, they found 70% of workers over age 50 experienced age discrimination. These are some examples:
- Asking a coworker if they “even know what Instagram is”
- Assuming a coworker doesn’t know how to use the company tech system or a certain type of software
The Consequences of Microaggressions in the Workplace
Microaggressions are harmful — no doubt about that. Again, it’s important to note that it doesn’t matter if a microaggression was intended as a compliment. There are still very real consequences that are damaging. These are some of the consequences of unchecked microaggressions in the workplace:
- Increased anxiety, stress, and depression. People who experience microaggressions have higher levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. Simply put, it’s more stressful to show up to work every day when you have to be on your guard.
- Increased burnout. On that same note, microaggressions can also increase burnout. When coming to work is hard, it’s going to wear out your team and lead to low employee retention.
- Lower job satisfaction. With more burnout, there’s also lower job satisfaction among those who experience microaggressions.
- Risk of increased turnover. In a study, about half of the participants said they’d consider leaving their job over hurtful workplace remarks. With microaggressions left unchecked, turnover behavior increases.
Letting microaggressions happen in your workplace hurts the individuals on the receiving end and your company. If even one employee leaves because of workplace discrimination, that leads to burnout and lower satisfaction, which could cost your company one-half to two-thirds of that individual’s salary. We all lose when we let microaggressions and discrimination continue.
The Role of HR Managers in Addressing Microaggression
So what can you do as an HR professional to address microaggressions in the workplace? As an HR manager, you’re in a unique position to help. Here are three areas that can be a part of your role in addressing microaggressions:
- Creating awareness and education. In HR, you’re regularly providing training and education for your team members. You help them learn new skills and further their careers. That’s awesome! It also means you’re in a uniquely powerful position to provide education and awareness to your team members on microaggressions. Remember how some microaggressions are supposedly well-meaning? You can help your employees understand how hurtful some remarks can actually be – and help them know what to say instead. You can’t combat microaggressions if you have team members that don’t know what microaggressions are and look like.
- Establishing clear policies and procedures. HR is also in charge of creating a lot of workplace policies. You can put procedures into place about microaggressions to make reporting an incident painless and to work the incident out.
- Providing resources and support. HR can also help the team members who are on the receiving end of microaggressions by providing them with resources and support. Maybe you create support groups for people to build connections, or maybe you ensure that your health insurance covers mental health support.
HR managers shouldn't sit back and let microaggressions at work continue. You have steps you can take and policies you can put in place to help make a difference!
Strategies for Dealing with Microaggression
Let’s dive into some strategies for dealing with microaggressions and working to try to eliminate them in your workplace culture:
- Self-awareness and reflection. You can’t help eliminate microaggressions without taking time to be aware of your own biases. Taking time to reflect on environmental microaggressions can be important. Then encourage your team members to do the same. You might include time for reflection where they can consider their own biases. It can be important to reframe microaggressions to be about the impact, rather than the intention.
- Promoting open communication and dialogue. Remember how lots of the instances of microaggressions aren’t reported? That’s why it matters to promote open communication and dialogue. Conversation can be a great way to help your team members understand why microaggressions are harmful and why the impact matters more. In fact, having conversations with team members can help them understand what was wrong and consciously avoid anything similar in the future.
- Implementing bystander intervention training. Here’s an unfortunate scenario that happens all too often. One employee makes a comment to another that’s subtly offensive. There’s a bystander too. The bystander, though, intervenes to try to explain the intent of the comment instead of speaking to the person who’s been hurt. You can help this situation by providing bystander intervention training. It can teach people how to effectively intervene in a way that’s helpful and reassures the person who’s been hurt.
- Encouraging diverse perspectives and inclusive practices. Eliminating microaggressions starts with inclusive practices. If you’re creating an inclusive environment that fosters diversity and encourages diverse perspectives, you’re going to create a better environment overall.
Addressing Microaggression at an Organizational Level
Let’s talk big picture ways to reduce microaggressions at an organizational level:
- Building a culture of inclusivity and respect. So many people consider a company’s culture to be crucial. In fact, 58% have said culture is more important than salary. So how do you build a culture of inclusiveness and respect? Start at the top. Leaders set the example, so having leadership focus on inclusivity and respect can be powerful.
- Conducting regular diversity and inclusion training. Here’s a great way to address microaggressions: hold trainings. Pull out your calendar and start scheduling in official diversity and inclusion training – that specifically works on microaggressions.
- Establishing channels for reporting and addressing microaggressions. To be able to report microaggressions, your team needs clear channels. There need to be policies in place that lets everyone know microaggressions aren’t tolerated and that they should be reported. Make it as easy as you can for people (both those who experienced the microaggression and bystanders) to report.
Putting some of these suggestions into place are great first steps to creating an environment where everyone feels welcome and where no one feels discriminated against.
Create a Workplace Centered on Wellbeing
Microaggressions can be anything subtle or unintentional that discriminates against a group of people. They’re hurtful, even if the offender meant it as a compliment. Working to eliminate microaggressions from the workplace is a great way to begin supporting your employees’ holistic wellbeing.
It’s only the beginning, though. There are many steps you can take to support your team members and create an environment that focuses on wellbeing. If you’re ready to get started with a wellbeing-centered workplace, talk to a Gympass wellbeing specialist today.
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The Gympass Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.