While people are increasingly refusing to stand by and allow brazen use of derogatory language or physical acts of aggression against marginalised groups to go unchallenged, calling out more convert or subtle acts of discrimination can prove a little trickier.
Microaggressions are present all around us in the workplace and not acknowledging their existence is not only damaging to individuals, but to business too. However, microaggressions are not so easy to spot, so it is vital to uncover their existence in order to take proactive steps to prevent and reduce their impact.
What are microaggressions?
A microaggression is an indirect or subtle put-down towards a person based on their protected characteristics. They are often wrapped up in what sounds like a compliment and, indeed, the speaker themselves may not be aware they are causing offence. Nonetheless, microaggressions reveal a deep-seated bias within an individual.
Here are a few examples:
- A person jokingly being told they don’t “act gay” because they don’t conform with wrongly-held stereotypes.
- A job application form offering only male or female gender options, excluding those who identify as non-binary.
- Someone remarking that a person is “open-minded, despite being a Christian” because of ill-judged assumptions about religion and its influence on someone’s opinions and conduct.
- A retail assistant following a black shopper around a store for no reason, highlighting a deeply-engrained bias that black people cannot be trusted.
- Touching a black person’s hair without permission, giving the impression that it is “novel” or “not normal”.
- A mum who often works late being asked to go home – an act of benevolent sexism that assumes she cannot cope with the same types of stress or workload as a man.
Why are microaggressions so harmful?
The long-term effect of microaggressions is often described as “death by a thousand cuts”. Whether they come from an employer, a stranger or a well-meaning friend, they can be emotionally exhausting to deal with and wear people down. Those who often find themselves the target of these toxic behaviours can struggle to do their best work, lessening their productivity and undermining their success.
The subtle nature of microaggressions makes them very insidious and can even lead to victims questioning whether they are right to feel offended. Unfortunately for this reason, when victims do feel confident enough to call out perpetrators, it can come with risk. For example, black people can be accused of playing the “race card” or made to think they are imagining things or being too sensitive (a veiled tactic is known as gaslighting), while the person who made the offensive comment admonishes themselves of all responsibility.
As a manager, how do I call out microaggressions?
As a third party to a microaggression, it may be easier for you to call it out. However, to confront a microaggression still involves a level of discomfort for you and the perpetrator – it’s one of the reasons they are often allowed to continue unchecked. People can become defensive and fear being perceived as racist or sexist, especially if they feel unaware that their remarks were offensive. So, when talking privately to an individual, be clear that you’re not calling them racist or sexist, but you’re addressing their words or actions.
Give them a chance to check themselves by challenging them to clarify their statement or action and what they meant by that. This also gives you an opportunity to gauge their intent and decide whether some sort of sanction, such as an official warning, may be appropriate. Hopefully, your intervention will make them think twice about their language and actions in the future.