Micro-aggression describes daily behaviour (verbal or nonverbal) that communicates hostile or negative insults towards a person or group, either intentionally or unintentionally. Particularly towards culturally marginalized, oppressed, or racialized people. They are often remarks, questions or actions that have to do with a person’s membership in a community or group that’s discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. They often happen casually, frequently and without harm intended in everyday life. Even though there is no harm intended, it does not mean that micro-aggressions don’t negatively affect people. They often can make one feel irritated and ‘othered’, not part of the mainstream. They reinforce the differences of any minority community from the majority demographic.
Micro-aggressions can be very common in the workplace, but they are often ignored because there is no explicit intent to degrade, exclude, or discriminate. Some examples of micro-aggressions at work include:
- Mispronouncing someone’s name because “it’s too difficult to say”
- “Complimenting a non-White colleague’s English under the assumption they weren’t born and raised in an English-speaking country
- Mistaking a Latinx colleague for a service worker
- Excluding a co-worker with a disability from an after-work event due to the assumption that they aren’t capable of participating
- Giving only personality-based feedback (“You should smile more”) to a female employee during her performance review
Microaggressions can greatly impact the environment of a workplace. Experiencing microaggressions can negatively affect one’s performance, sense of belonging, development and more. Microaggressions can undermine an organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
But, why do micro-aggressions happen if we don’t mean any harm? Because micro-aggressions are largely a result of unconscious biases that people carry with them. Unconscious bias is a biased attitude operating outside your awareness and control, are difficult to access or be aware of, & influence your action more than conscious bias.
This past month, Prompta hosted a workshop in which we explored how unconscious bias and other topics such as micro-aggressions affect the workplace. As we spoke about micro-aggressions, many participants started to share their stories of experiencing micro-aggressions in the workplace. Some examples the participants gave were:
- Being asked, “how can you speak English so well?”
- A customer asking to speak with someone who is white
- Being asked, “do you understand me?”
- Being asked by other co-workers to organize social events or birthdays because I am a female
- Being told I must be in the wrong office
- Being asked, “why aren’t you retired?”
- Being asked “are you prepared for this meeting?” because I am young.
Even though there may have been no harm intended when these were said, that doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt someone’s feelings. In the workplace, it is important to acknowledge the weight behind microaggressions, as well as acknowledge how they may make someone feel. Acknowledging micro-aggressions and unconscious bias can also help to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in a workplace.
During our workshop, some participants asked what to do after they have committed a micro-aggression. If someone feels as though you have committed a micro-aggression, resist the urge to react defensively. Listen sincerely, and with empathy. During our workshop, we wanted to emphasize the importance of empathy. Ensuring you employ empathy without making snap judgements, will help to eliminate unconscious bias and micro-aggressions. Verbally acknowledge the impact a micro-aggression can hold. It’s important to recognize the pain a micro-aggression can cause someone. Finally, apologize for your mistakes but don’t expect forgiveness.
Understanding micro-aggressions and their impact will automatically allow for employees and co-workers to feel more comfortable and be able to bring their true selves to work. Starting at unconscious bias is an important first step to overcoming micro-aggressions.