Christine M Meadows, Vigilant
“I couldn’t talk to her; she was totally hysterical.”
“I don’t even think of you as being black.”
“That’s so gay.”
Micro-aggressions are those comments and interactions at work that leave employees feeling uneasy, angry, or upset – sometimes in ways that aren’t easily explained. Using a racial slur is an overt discriminatory act. Micro-aggressions can come from people who mean no harm. The question to the multi-racial co-worker, “What are you?” may come from a real curiosity, but is rude and could carry an additional message that dismisses the racial identity of the person who hears it. In isolation these acts may not quite rise to the level of legal discrimination, but that single interaction communicates that a person is “other” or an outsider. Add up the experience of daily, weekly, and monthly micro-aggressions, and you could have a legally hostile work environment.
Micro-aggressions in the workplace manifest in different ways. Consider the following examples:
- Men talk to each other during a meeting and ignore the woman at the table, talking over her when she tries to contribute;
- A manager tells an applicant of Chinese decent that he "speaks excellent English,” though it is obvious from his resume he was born and raised in the United States;
- An African American manager gives a presentation and his Caucasian co-worker says she "had no idea he was so articulate.”
These types of interactions are not likely to find their way to upper management. Employees who already feel marginalized may never bring the issue forward, afraid of being labeled a whiner or of facing an unsympathetic supervisor or human resources representative. Confronting co-workers with the harmful impact of their statements may just make it worse (“I meant it as a joke/compliment. Why are you so sensitive?”), creating an additional burden on the employee who is already feeling marginalized. If micro-aggressions are part of the organizational culture, the individual also has no reason to believe that organizational leadership will address it. As a result, these daily interactions can make an environment so intolerable over time that employees look for employment elsewhere.
The truth is we probably have all been guilty of engaging in some form of micro-aggression at some point in time, intended or not. These subtle discriminations are born from our own internal biases. Addressing micro-aggression must start with recognizing these internal biases and actively attempting to counter them. As an individual contributor within your organization, you can continue to learn and be honest with yourself about your own personal biases. Recognize that your experiential reality may be different from people of different races, gender, ethnicity, and age. Don’t be defensive about the fact that you have preconceptions or defend the basis for your personal biases. Acknowledge that the feelings of others are valid and based on their life experiences. Be willing to discuss your biases and recognize how you may have hurt others, even unintentionally. Have the courage to call attention to micro-aggressive behavior when it occurs. For example, “Steve, we’ve been talking over Sue and she has an interesting point. Let’s give her our full attention.” Micro-aggressions can make people feel excluded; be vigilant about supporting colleagues who may feel marginalized.
In addition, organizations must work on a broader scale to create a culture in which everyone treats each other with respect. To accomplish this, many major corporations regularly engage in implicit bias training with their employees to increase their individual awareness. In a culture where it is safe, even encouraged, to bring up and discuss perceived micro-aggressions, the behavior tends to decrease. For example, the woman who was born in Ohio and is of Asian-American descent when asked, “Where were you born?” may perceive the question as one framing her as a stranger in her own country. The co-worker may have meant, “Were you born in Columbus?” and will be more likely to rephrase the question in a sensitive manner if the organization can provide safe and effective communication tools that bring micro-aggressions into the open. By discussing these issues, everyone gains a better understanding of each other. For that to occur, both employees must feel safe and trust the environment to allow honest conversations to happen.
While it sounds deceptively simple, addressing micro-aggressions in the workplace is not an easy thing to accomplish. It requires a long-term commitment to organizational values that holds everyone accountable to themselves and their co-workers for managing their biases in the workplace. The bottom line is that organizational change starts with individuals, and as individuals, it starts with us. Respect each other, everyone, no exceptions.
Christine Meadows is an employment and labor attorney at Vigilant.