Combatting Microaggressions in the Workplace

The tech industry has, in recent years, taken calculated steps to improve its diversity problem. It’s no secret that representation of women and people of colour is still lacking, but more and more we are hearing companies speak of their Diversity and Inclusivity initiatives. While improved diversity is a goal where measurable targets can be set, inclusivity is a much less tangible aim. Inclusion by what metric? Unfortunately, investing time and resources into diversity initiatives is a fruitless effort if employees don’t feel respected and supported in bringing their whole selves to the workplace.

If you’re a woman, a person of colour, someone who identifies as LGBTQIA+, or a member of any other marginalized or systemically oppressed group, chances are you’ve experienced some kind of denigrating exchange at work. Yes, this happens even at companies that purport to champion D&I. Whether it be a well-meaning but ultimately back-handed compliment, or a subtle attempt to insult or exclude, these seemingly small and inconsequential microaggressions can have devastating effects personally and professionally.

What are microaggressions, exactly?

Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group. — Derald Wing Sue

What is critical to note here is that regardless of whether these indignities are intentional or unintentional, the effect is more important than the intent.

This truly cannot be overemphasized. When we talk about microaggressions, particularly when they are unconscious or unintentional, this is imperative to remember. It doesn’t matter how the interaction was meant; what matters is how it was perceived. It’s also important to know that the effects of microaggressions are cumulative, meaning that isolated events on their own may not appear to have serious effects, but that over time the sum total weight of microaggressions can be absolutely crushing.

The best way to describe this cumulative impact is “Death by a thousand cuts.”

Types of Microaggressions

Microaggresions are expressed in three primary forms.

Microinsults are interpersonal or environmental communications that convey stereotypes, rudeness, and insensitivity, and that demean a person’s racial, gender, or sexual orientation, heritage, or identity. They represent subtle snubs, frequently outside of the conscious awareness of the perpetrator. (Often unconscious.)

Here are some examples of what microinsults can look like:

“You should be good at this.” — In a team-building exercise, the team leader assigns a mathematical component of an exercise to the only team member of Asian descent, thus implying a stereotype that all Asian people are good at math.

“Hold-on Grandpa, let me show you how that works.” — Even though they are likely meant in fun, jokes about older employees being out of touch with technology play into a stereotype that is often untrue, and can hinder career advancement or opportunity for the older employee.

“You speak English really well for an immigrant.” — Comments like these, although likely intended as a compliment, can make the individual feel like an “other”, reinforcing the idea that they are still not “like the rest of us”. It’s important to note here that there is nothing inherently offensive about the first part of the statement — it’s the addition of the exclusionary language at the end that makes this a microinsult. For an immigrant, for a woman, for your age, etc.

Microassaults are conscious, deliberate, and either subtle or explicit racial, gender, or sexual-orientation biased attitudes, beliefs, or behaviours that are communicated to marginalized groups through environmental cues, verbalizations, or behaviours. They are meant to attack the group identity of the person or to hurt the individual through name-calling, avoidant behaviour, or purposeful discriminatory actions. (Often conscious.)

An example of this might be intentionally addressing a non-binary individual by the wrong pronouns, or intentionally referring to a trans person by their biologically assigned gender.

Purposeful discriminatory actions may include dress codes that do not permit religious or ethnic garb (such as the hijab or the Sikh turban), or that do not permit certain hairstyles (like braids or dreadlocks).

Microinvalidations are characterized by communications or environmental cues that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of certain groups, such as people of colour, women, and LGBTQIA+ peoples. These may potentially represent the most damaging form of the three types of microaggressions because they directly and insidiously deny the racial, gender, or sexual-orientation reality of these groups. This is also commonly referred to as gaslighting. (Often unconscious.)

A few examples of microinvalidations:

“You’re being paranoid.” — The denial of the existence of discrimination or oppression, i.e. telling a gay friend or employee that they are wrong or silly in thinking someone is discriminating against them implies that heterosexist bias does not exist. It is important to remember that the cumulative effect of microaggressions may cause certain individuals to be more sensitive to microaggressive interactions. What may seem like paranoia, overreaction, or oversensitivity might actually be a result of psychological exhaustion from regularly experiencing microaggressions.

“I don’t see colour.” — Colourblindess and political-correctness (and, arguably, Canadian politeness) actually denies a person of their racial or ethnic experiences. Though often well-meaning, colourblindness maintains and perpetuates the illusion of equity instead of recognizing the reality of privilege and oppression.

Processing Microaggressions

Experiencing a microaggression in and of itself can be upsetting, but processing the incident can be equally confusing and emotionally taxing. Experiencing a microaggression may cause an individual to think:

  • Did I interpret that correctly?
  • Did they say what I think they just said?
  • What did they mean by that?
  • Should I say something?
  • Saying something may make things worse.
  • They’ll probably think I’m overreacting.
  • Speaking up is going to hurt more than it helps.

Especially where it concerns microinvalidations, self-doubt can severely hinder an individual’s ability to process the event and confront the situation. The following is a model proposed by professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University, Derald Wing Sue. This model can be used to help process a microagressive incident, both as a victim of microaggression, or as a perpetrator (although the latter undoubtedly requires a tremendous level of introspection, self-awareness, and willingness to admit one’s wrongdoings).

1. Potential Microaggressive Incident/Event

2. Perception and Questioning of the Incident

3. Reaction Process

4. Interpretation and Meaning

5. Consequences and Impact

I’ll give a personal example to help illustrate this processing model:

  1. A number of years ago, I worked under a team of male creative directors who would interrupt, talk over me, or completely disregard any of my contributions during brainstorming sessions.
  2. My perception was that these were not isolated events, but I wondered if this only happened only to me. Did they treat my male peers the same way? What about other women?
  3. These incidents left me feeling disrespected, frustrated, excluded, and like my ideas and opinions were not valued.
  4. I interpreted this as being a manifestation of disrespect towards, and in the larger context of other repeated microaggressive behaviours, a genuine disdain for women.
  5. The short term consequences were that I was passed over for opportunities and promotions: not only was I not given a voice, I was never even given a seat at the table. The long term cumulative impact was job frustration, emotional burnout, and ultimately I left the company.

Recognizing Effect and Impact

Microaggressions create a hostile and invalidating climate for people of marginalized groups, sap their spiritual and psychic energies, and their cumulative nature can result in underperformance, depression, frustration, anger, loss of self-esteem, anxiety, and more.

From a strictly business perspective, not taking the steps to foster a truly inclusive work environment can be detrimental to employee retention. In a 2016 study of over 1,000 U.S. adults conducted by the Center for Generational Kinetics and Ultimate Software, 6 out of 10 respondents reported that a lack of emotional safety at work would make them quit a job immediately. Poof! There go all your efforts to hire a more “diverse” team.

(It should be stated that if your D&I initiatives are based solely on the well-documented productivity and profit merits of a more diverse staff, you are choosing greed over humanity and are sorely missing the point).

Microaggressions deeply impact a healthy corporate culture by devaluing social identities, perpetuating stereotype threat (when people feel they are, or feel themselves to be at risk of, confirming negative stereotypes about their social group), causing isolation, and creating fear or mistrust of systems, people, and places.

While the effects of microaggressions on marginalized social groups are well documented, what we don’t talk a lot about are the potential negative impacts on the aggressor when their behaviours are not confronted and corrected.

Left unchecked and unchallenged, these damaging attitudes and behaviours can lead to a lack of compassion, a lack of empathy, and a lack of social awareness. These are things that fundamentally make us human, and the erosion of compassion and empathy denies an individual of the full human experience.

What You Can Do

Luckily, combatting microaggressions is actually less daunting than it may seem. Here are a few suggestions to help nurture an accepting and inclusive work environment:

  • Listen actively when someone raises a concern
  • Be open to feedback — try not to get defensive (“I didn’t mean it like that.” “Why are you being so sensitive?”)
  • Work on becoming aware of your own unconscious bias
  • Experiential reality is important — interact with those different from you
  • Be open to discussing your own attitudes and biases and how they may have hurt others in the past
  • Interrupt microaggressions when you see them happening
  • Recognize the role you play (inaction can speak louder than words)

Often, microaggressions (particularly microinsults) are a result of being unfamiliar with a person’s racial/ethnic/gender/sexual/religious identities. In rephrasing the way we ask certain questions, we can help avoid making hurtful assumptions that perpetuate negative stereotypes. Here are a few ways you might be able to learn more about someone in a respectful manner:

If it is okay with you, can I ask you more about ________?

“I’ve heard you refer to yourself as queer. If it is okay with you, can I ask you more about what that means?”

I don’t know much about this information, but I am wondering if I can ask you because I trust you…

“I don’t know much about this information, but I’m wondering if I can ask you because I trust you: what’s the difference between being Sikh and being Muslim?”

I may make a mistake in the way I phrase this, but is it alright if I ask you about ________?

“I may make a mistake in the way I phrase this, but is it alright if I ask you about why you go by ‘they’ instead of ‘she’?”

Combatting microaggressions is just one small but impactful way we can work towards building and fostering more inclusive workspaces. What helpful measures have you or your company taken to improve Diversity and Inclusivity? Let me know in the comments!