What are microaggressions?

To some, the term ‘microaggressions’ is unfamiliar but to many, it describes their experiences in and outside of the workplace.  And this workplace could be a large corporate through to a small two-person outfit. 

Recently, microaggressions have been thrown into sharp focus by a marked change in our awareness and increased understanding of the issue within the workplace.

As the name suggests, microaggressions are those small instances or negative actions or statements that relate to racism, homophobia, sexism, or anything that differentiates a person or group of people.   Sometimes this can be in the form of an insult or joke which often relates to an aspect of a person’s identity. Even though microaggressions can be unintentional, they often have a negative impact on the person who is on the receiving end of the microaggression, which can overtime affect a person’s wellbeing, health and sense of belonging at work.  

Microaggressive comments can become casual, not uncommon in everyday life, and can make a person feel offended and discriminated against.


Identifying microaggressions

Because of their subtle nature, microaggressions can be difficult to identify, so it is important to understand what these look or sound like in the form of everyday acts and behaviours.   Small actions or seemingly ‘throw away’ remarks may be missed within the context of a busy working environment but for those on the receiving end, these form part of their day-to-day interactions with others. 

Phrases along the lines of “You’re smarter than I expected,” You are exotic”, “Where are you really from?”, “Your English is really good”. “You are not at all what I expected for your type” or “I didn’t expect you to want a career after having your family”, may not be said with any negative meaning but hearing similar comments every day can have a serious cumulative effect. They ‘other’ and can ostracise a person as well as insult, upset or offend a person. Research suggests and anecdotes from people who have received microaggressions share that the experience can feel like ‘death by a 1000 cuts’ or being ‘punched in the same spot repeatedly’. 

Those experiencing microaggressions may be unwilling to speak out and bring it to the attention of their manager or HR, perhaps fearing the consequences of speaking up or questioning that it may be ‘all in their head’.  This can include a fear of not being taken seriously and having the issue dismissed as “part of office life”. Microaggressions in the workplace have for many years been dismissed or badged as office banter, dismissing the impact the comments have on a person and rarely addressing the behaviour of the person who issued the microaggression, resulting in there being no change and a continued lack of awareness. This has in many cases been as a result of staff, managers, leaders and HR not being able to identify microaggressions or a lack of understanding of what they are and the impact they have.  This is corrosive and creates an ongoing feeling of being seen as inferior or a second-class citizen by those around you.  In smaller businesses and start-ups, microaggressions can feel even more significant.   Consistent contact with the same small circle of people can lead to actions feeling more “concentrated”.   With informal internal departments, there may be little or no option of a discussion with HR or a formal manager. 


Responding to and tackling microaggressions

Identifying microaggressions needs vigilance by you as a business leader and employer.  However, in the first instance, the most important step you can take in tackling microaggressions is to ensure any staff or partners with concerns about such behaviour are listened to. You need to build trust and understanding where communication about microaggressions is supported and leaned into, rather than dismissing the discussion because it is uncomfortable. It will be an uncomfortable conversation, but it is a necessary conversation that must be owned and handled with care when issues arise.

When addressing the issue, any response needs to reflect the situation and the circumstances as well as be appropriate to the individuals involved.  Take time to consider the options.  There may be several routes open to you – from a quick informal chat to seeking HR or more formal support.  But responding formally to every instance you observe or experience can have consequences for the rest of the team, as can treating each instance as if there was an intention.  It is very much a case of making sure your response is appropriate to the person or the people involved in order to successfully navigate the conflict and reach a positive outcome for everyone.

Where to from here?

As business leader/employer, what significant steps can you take to tackle this issue? 

There are challenges both in addressing microaggressions and in creating a culture where diversity, inclusion, and real equity (where there is a true level playing field) can thrive.  It requires not only educating yourself and your team but also a high level of consistency and commitment from all concerned.  Both yourself as a leader as well as employees and partners must be able to work in an environment without fear of judgement or reprimand for speaking their truth about what they have experienced.

Ask yourself what you can do to be more aware of your own behaviour.  Examine the language you use, the actions you take.  Are you unconsciously bias or have committed microaggressions without realising? The chances are you have committed microaggressions in the past and we all have biases. Ignoring this truth will be detrimental to you, your brand and reputation, your staff and your business.  It can be an uncomfortable process but this continued self-awareness will help you identify the same in others.

Helping others become more attuned to their own behaviours – unconscious or not – and the impact such behaviours can have is another important step, as is learning (and being confident enough) to call out microaggressions and more overt bullying or harassment when experienced or witnessed. 

Microaggressions, if not addressed, can escalate quickly, leading to workplaces and working relationships feeling at best, uncomfortable, and at worst, becoming a toxic and harmful environment for everyone. Taking the time to educate yourself on these issues, to understand and identify and become aware of your own actions, will encourage others to follow suit, and help create a positive workplace culture where all staff and partners linked to your business are able flourish and succeed.

Where you can find me

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Charlene Brown

Charlene Brown

About your author

Charlene Brown is a lawyer, entrepreneur and diversity & inclusion specialist. As an employment lawyer, Charlene founded Howlett Brown, the UK’s only firm that offers a holistic approach to people-related issues within organisations by looking at the root cause to ensure lasting solutions. As a diversity & inclusion specialist, Charlene delivers D&I training to some of EMEA’s most known organisations. In 2020 Charlene was named in the top 20 Diversity Professionals in Industry, in the Global Diversity List which celebrates excellence in D&I.


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