A manager in a performance review says to his female employee, “You might want to try to smile more in meetings.” Someone at work says to a coworker “He’s Christian, but he’s so open-minded." Someone asks a group of coworkers if they want to grab a beer after work, while ignoring another coworker nearby. A job application form only has Male and Female as gender options.
These are all examples of workplace microaggressions, everyday verbal and nonverbal slights or snubs, which are frequently not intended to cause harm or hurt feelings, but their impact often does just that. They communicate negative or hostile messages that are based solely on the recipient's perceived marginalized group membership. Even though the recipient is the one who may feel that the message is hostile, it's the obligation of all of us to make sure we avoid using language that could be perceived as a microaggression.
Some of the examples above may seem obvious, but microaggressions in the workplace can happen unintentionally. It’s important to recognize and acknowledge them if someone says they were offended by something you said. People from underrepresented and marginalized groups experience microaggressions on a daily basis and after a while, it understandably will wear on a person - it’s like ‘death by a thousand papercuts.’
Responding to feedback about a microaggression at work
If you find yourself in a situation where someone has approached you with a concern, here are some ways to handle it:
- Listen to the person’s concerns. Do your best to understand the impact you had on someone else and avoid saying you didn’t mean it or you were making a joke. Saying something was a joke can come across as making light of someone else’s pain. By saying you didn’t mean it, you can come across as trying to invalidate the other person’s experience.
- Verbally acknowledge that their feelings are valid and underscore that it wasn’t your intention, but you understand that it created a negative impact.
- Apologize, but do your best to not make it about your needing forgiveness. You might not get it and that’s okay.
- Try to let it go and move on. These things happen and it’s important to remember we’re human and we make mistakes. It’s easy to hyper-focus on it every time you see that person, but that won’t help anyone.
Dealing with receiving a microaggression in the workplace
If you find yourself the recipient of a microaggression, taking a breath is the first step in figuring out your response. It’s really easy to get angry and lash out, especially if you’re a recipient of your one-thousandth paper cut.
Then, decide if you want to talk with the person about what happened. It may be appropriate to do it in the moment, but it may not be. It’s important to recognize that power dynamics can be at play here, so if you do decide to confront someone, you want to be sure you feel safe enough to do so.
If you decide to talk with the person:
- Be clear that it isn’t about calling someone a racist or sexist, it’s about the act and/or words. Once you call someone a racist or sexist, the conversation stops. But if you focus on the action, it’s something that can be addressed.
- Relay that this isn’t about shaming or blaming, that you’ve come to this person because you wanted to express that you were hurt and perhaps that you value the relationship enough to have the conversation.
- Ask how the person is feeling after you’ve share the impact of their actions.
- Wait and listen. Understand that you might not get the reaction you want. If the person is defensive, and wants to make it about ‘having a laugh,’ you can try to have a deeper conversation, but again, it’s about your comfort level.
- Accept the outcome and move on. However it plays out, you’ve done what you can to address the issue.
If you’re a witness to a microaggression in the workplace, what do you do?
Much like the recipient of a microaggression, take a breath and decide if you want to talk with the person about what happened. If you do talk to them, acknowledge that you’re sharing your feelings, as the person who you think was offended may not have been offended at all.
Then, you’ll want to follow the same steps as the above, but again, it’s really important to note that this is your experience, and it isn’t about fixing anyone.
Microaggressions at work happen all the time, so it’s important to know how to address them. There are ways to mitigate them in positive and productive ways through healthy dialogue, humility, and empathy. We spend a lot of time at work, and how we treat one another in an office environment is important to how we feel both at work, and when we're off the clock.
If you're looking for answers to creating healthier cultures in your workplace, contact Culture Amp for tools to find solutions to every day issues relating to company culture.
Rachel is Co-CEO of She Geeks Out, a company that provides holistic solutions for creating a more inclusive work culture. She Geeks Out does this by creating community for tech and tech-adjacent women, and by offering solutions for companies on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Rachel runs tech, operations, and finance, and works closely with Co-CEO Felicia Jadczak on strategy and on corporate programming on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
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