Are Microaggressions Sabotaging Your Teams?

Microaggressions can be harmful to your employees who are experiencing them. Take these steps to create a safe and inclusive work environment.

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A microaggression can be defined as a subtle yet powerful attack on an individual’s identity.

A microaggression at work can look like a colleague who:

  • constantly speaks over you or belittles your ideas
  • continuously mispronounces your name even though you’ve corrected them several times over
  • makes a joke about your culture or religion at your expense
  • makes a harmful comment about your accent or sexuality

According to Harvard Business Review, microaggressions are based on a simple, damaging idea: “Because you are X, you probably are/are not or like/don’t like Y.”

Sometimes the victim of a microaggression may not even realize they are a target, because the comment can be so covert. In some scenarios, the aggressor may not even realize they’ve crossed a line with their behavior. Their commentary may not be obviously offensive, or their intentions may not have been malicious to begin with.

Whatever the cause and intent may be, the impact is that microaggressions can be harmful for your employees who are experiencing them. They can erode psychological safety, contribute to burnout, and cause your employees to feel invalidated.

If you’re trying to build a winning employee culture, the presence of microaggressions will make it difficult for your employees to thrive.

If you suspect microaggressions are eroding your company culture, it’s important to take action quickly! In this article, we will discuss:

  1. What microaggressions are
  2. How they might be impacting your culture
  3. What the research says in 2022
  4. How to spot microaggressions
  5. What interventions are available to you

What are microaggressions in the workplace?

While microaggressions in the workplace can happen to anyone, certain groups are more vulnerable than others. According to the McKinsey Women in the Workplace Report, women are more likely than men to experience microaggressions in their day-to-day, and women of color are more likely to be victimized than White women.

Common microaggressions targeting these groups involve reactions around their language skills, questions about their judgment, ability, and competency, and comments around their emotional states.

These microaggressions are typically experienced across a spectrum of 3 themes:

Microassaults

An open act of aggression toward a marginalized group, aimed at discrediting them. For example, mocking someone’s accent by mimicking them as a joke.

Microinsults

This is similar to a backhanded compliment. The person making the microinsult says something negative about a marginalized group, but points you out as being different.

For example, they might say “You’re not like other [insert stereotype group] people.” In their eyes, they are giving you a compliment, when in reality they are insulting you.

Microinvalidation

This is when someone’s comment discredits the suffering or negative experience of a specific marginalized group. For example, this would include denying that sexism exists in a workplace where clear gender-based discrimination is taking place.

Microaggressions can happen anywhere.

Microaggressions can happen anywhere. In fact, 26% of Americans have experienced a microaggression at work, while 36% have witnessed them happening. Each individual in your organization is responsible for being deliberate and thinking about the words and tone they lead with in everyday interactions.

How do microaggressions impact company culture?

Company culture influences how your employees will interact with each other, and also how external stakeholders (like customers or suppliers) will interact with your brand.

If you have a culture rooted in strong values, the behavior of your employees should reflect those values. For example, if you have a company rooted in equality, then Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives should be lived values.

However, if the behavior of your individual employees begins to contradict what the values of the company are, you could begin to see your culture erode.

In the above example, if equality is a core value for your company, yet your employees continue to experience microaggressions from each other, your culture can become toxic. Your employees may begin losing trust that leadership actually cares about their well-being. They may wonder if the company values mean anything at all.

At the corporate level, this could impact your retention, your employee happiness, and overall productivity. If you have a culture that alienates your diverse talent, then you’ll not only have trouble retaining that talent, but you’ll struggle to attract diverse talent as well.

Microagressions erode psychological safety at work

Another impact that the presence of microaggressions can have on your business is the erosion of psychological safety.

Psychological safety refers to “a shared belief held by members of a team that they are safe to take interpersonal risks.” When there is a strong sense of safety within a team, people feel more comfortable speaking up and experimenting as they don’t fear being judged or shamed for voicing their opinions.

According to Accenture, companies that offer a strong sense of psychological safety also report:

  • 76% more engagement
  • 50% more productivity
  • 27% reduction in turnover

If your employees are constantly feeling subtle or overt microaggressions, they may begin to feel like they don’t belong.

They may also experience mental health struggles and feel uncomfortable speaking up in meetings or sharing their opinions with others. They will refrain from taking risks or putting themselves up for promotion, as they fear making themselves more visible will lead to more aggression.

Other colleagues who witness these kinds of aggressions towards their peers may be influenced to hide who they are as well, as they see from their colleagues that psychological safety is not present.

This is obviously not the kind of environment you, as a business owner, want to create. This is why it’s so important to listen and look for when microaggressions happen, and call them out as you see them.

If you allow microaggressions to happen without intervention, you signal to your employees that this kind of behavior is acceptable. This all impacts the culture of your organization.

Microaggressions in 2022: The impact on your employees

Working remotely throughout the pandemic actually helped shield some marginalized groups from being constantly exposed to or experiencing microaggressions.

One report notes that “Only 3% of Black knowledge workers want to return to full-time co-located work (vs. 21% of White knowledge workers in the U.S.).”

The reason for this? Flexible work arrangements allowed Black employees to:

  • Reduce the amount of energy spent on Code-Switching
  • Avoid exposure to consistent microaggressions
  • Have more space and time to bounce back when they did experience a microaggression

The same report above also indicates that flexible and hybrid working arrangements help Black employees by increasing:

  • Their sense of belonging at work
  • Their ability to manage stress by 64%
  • And increasing their work-life balance by 25%

For racialized groups, having the option to work from home can help protect them from the toxicity of emotionally unsafe working conditions. Now, as businesses return to normal, it’s important to look out for microaggressions in your workplace.

If you’re planning on asking your employees to return to the office, consider what impact this might have on your marginalized groups without proper intervention.

How can you spot microaggressions in your workplace?

Are you concerned that microaggressions may be present in your workplace? To help detect them, start building awareness for yourself, and those around you.

At an organizational level, you can create a safe space for ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) to operate. One of the benefits of ERGs is that they allow employees with a particular commonality (religion, ethnicity, shared interest, gender, etc.) to share a space, support each other, and spread awareness.

If you’re well connected with your ERGs, the participants of these groups will be able to come to you and discuss problems they might be experiencing with microaggressions in the organization.

You could also create a pulse survey for your company and focus your questions around inclusion and psychological safety to get a better understanding of how your employees are feeling.

At a personal level, you can dedicate time to building your own awareness around the harmful effects that microaggressions can have. This will help you better spot them in your business.

You can take some time to learn about common phrases that may be offensive to the people around you. For example, do you ever catch yourself using the terms “blacklist?” This is just 1 of the many microaggression terms people often use.

What more can small businesses do to help their employees?

There are many initiatives you can implement at the organizational level to help improve the well-being of your employees and protect them from microaggressions. These include, but are not limited to:

Providing formalized training

The global spend on formal DEI training is set to reach 15.4 billion dollars by 2026. And for good reason! There are many different kinds of training you could provide for your employees that will help them learn more about anti-racism and allyship.

There are many different kinds of training you could provide for your employees that will help them learn more about anti-racism and allyship.

Training can be in the form of an instructor-led program, an eLearning series, a speaker series, or even guided discussions where your employees have a safe space to share their experiences with each other.

If you are going to provide training, be sure to:

  • Allow your employees time in their workday to participate. This should not be something the company expects them to complete in their own free time.
  • Hire a professional. This should not be an off-the-desk job for your HR team. There are professional consultants who can help you build proper training that will have a real impact.
  • Make the learning continuous. DEI training should never be a box you check, nor should it be a 1-time event. Rather, it should be a continuous learning journey that is part of the culture.
  • Have buy-in and participation from the executive level. Without their support and modeling, you’ll have a difficult time getting your employees to adjust their behavior or participate.

Evaluating your policies and workplace design

The pandemic has created an opportunity to redesign workplaces and policies to be more equitable for their employees of color. Three areas worth re-examining include:

Flexible working arrangements: If you’re looking at how to reduce microaggressions in the workplace, consider allowing your employees a more flexible work schedule. If working from home helps them feel safer and more capable of being productive, let them!

Hiring: How do you go about evaluating incoming candidates into your organization? Do you have a hiring strategy that removes bias from the get-go?

Disciplinary action: What about repercussions for those employees who demonstrate clear-cut microaggressions? Do you have a disciplinary policy and process in place that allows for proper investigation? If an act of aggression has in fact taken place, are there real consequences set in place?

Being an ally to your colleagues

Allyship can be defined as “when a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group’s basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society.”

According to the McKinsey Women in the Workplace report mentioned earlier, while the majority of White employees see themselves as allies, they fail to speak up against racism in the workplace or advocate for women of color.

There is a gap between what people perceive to be proper allyship, and what their colleagues actually need in order to feel supported.

What’s your biggest 2022 HR challenge that you’d like to resolve

Answer to see the results

Lead by example to set expectations of appropriate behavior

To help with microaggressions, be deliberate in how you speak, educate yourself, and own up to the mistakes you make. As a leader, HR professional, or policy maker in your organization, your employees will be looking to you to gauge what kind of behavior is expected and appropriate.

Remember that it’s OK to make mistakes. Taking accountability, showing empathy, and seeking to understand will help you improve for the future and create a healthier workplace.

The impact of microaggressions in your organization is far from micro! If you want to get the best out of your employees, you owe it to them to create an environment where everyone is safe to be themselves.

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