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Microaggressions in the workplace are a big deal. Do better.

ageism black women in the workplace dei homophobia microaggressions sexism systemic racism toxic work culture Jan 12, 2023

Imagine having to go through the distraction and stress of regular indignities and passive-aggressive comments at work. To add insult to injury, add on the gaslighting and labeling you would be subjected to if you called out your colleagues or superiors? Will this affect your professional reputation? Will people label you difficult or too sensitive? Will this affect your promotional opportunities? For many women, Black people, people of Color, LGBTQ+ and any intersectional combinations of these and other demographics this is a common occurrence. The intention may be to break the ice or lighten the mood with a joke, or even to give a compliment but it might be perceived as a microaggression to the receiver. What sounds like a minor slight has a big impact on the morale and productivity of your team and the perceived respectfulness and professionalism of your organizational culture. As an organizational leader, it is your responsibility to set and monitor the work culture and climate. You need to know what microaggressions are, what they look and sound like, and why you need to address them to do better by your team.


The mental gymnastics the recipient of microaggressions must go through to make a split-second decision to either correct you or to ignore your slight is counterproductive to a respectful work culture.

Microaggressions are brief but often regularly repeated comments and behaviors, whether intentional or unintentional, that convey hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults. These are typically directed toward Black people and people of Color, but also apply to any other underrepresented demographics in the workplace. Due to the subtle yet repetitive and damaging nature of microaggressions, they have been referred to as "death by a thousand paper cuts". Real-life examples of microaggressions in the workplace include:


·      Racial Insensitivity: I might wear three or more different hairstyles in a week, so variety in appearance is not a surprise to my colleagues. I had just gotten my hair braided (in gorgeous Senegalese twists, I might add) and upon seeing me for the first time that day, a white male colleague said to me, “you look like an Afro Studies professor” (which he knows I am not), with a chuckle. To this I replied, “Really? Not a Leadership & Management professor (which he knows I am)? He sheepishly replied, “Oh, I get your point…I was just trying to say I like your hair, don’t be so sensitive”. He popped into my cubicle the next day and nervously asked, “We’re good, right? I mean, yesterday…I didn’t mean any harm, I’m as liberal as they come…”. *Heavy sigh. I get it, Black women are fascinating and magical with their versatile hair and swag. Just make the compliment, if so compelled, and save your ignorant cultural commentary and defense of said ignorance. Do better.


     Sexism: in my multiple decades of celebrations and potlucks at work, I have rarely seen male colleagues directly asked to be on a planning committee but have regularly seen women colleagues asked and even assigned these duties. Albeit women colleagues may be most likely to volunteer to host an office bridal or baby shower, office hospitality almost always lands on the desk of a female employee, regardless of celebration, seniority, or position. The assumption that women are better at or enjoy being entertainers more than their male colleagues is inherently sexist and incorrect. Ask for volunteers for office parties, rotate the responsibility (or burden) among the team, or if no volunteers assign someone who has not done it before. Do better. 


     Homophobia: The use of the word “partner” can have several connotations: a business partner, a project partner, a teammate, or a romantic partner. I’ve experienced multiple times when someone making a report back or a presentation, usually a male colleague, will find themselves referring to their colleague as “my partner” and catches themselves mid-sentence to make the very unnecessary clarification that their same-sex colleague is not “THAT KIND” of partner. This is usually followed by mocking chuckles and chiding from the rest of the team. This is insensitive and homophobia-disguised-as-humor. Do better.


 ·      Ageism: Many of us work with 3-4 age groups at the same time: Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Y. While offense is usually not intended, jokes or references to someone’s age can be received as discounting their abilities and not taking them seriously as a professional. Jokingly asking someone who is older if they even know how to use modern technology, or constantly referencing your specific years of experience every time you want to challenge the opinion of a younger colleague is discrediting and dismissive. Do better.


The feelings your colleagues experience in that moment, as well as the thoughts and feelings that linger long after are valid and destructive. The mental gymnastics the recipient of microaggressions must go through to make a split-second decision to either correct you and look overly sensitive and aggressive, or to ignore your comments and cringe every time you repeat them because you didn’t stop to think about the impact of your words is counterproductive to a respectful work culture. 


             So, what do you do if you overhear a colleague or subordinate drop a microaggression in the workplace? My advice is to address it in a way that acknowledges the occurrence and the negative impact, make it clear that it is not welcome in the workplace, as well as what the consequences are if it happens again. Acknowledging the slight and checking in with the recipient is a great way to close it out; showing that you are sensitive to the subtlety of microaggressions is demonstrating emotional intelligence. You decide when and how to best do this depending on your leadership style and work culture. But whatever you do… Do. Better.