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How to Prevent Microaggression in the Workplace

Microaggression can be hard to identify and hard to deal with.

If you’re the cause of microaggression, you may not realize that your actions and behaviour are hurting people’s feelings. If you’re a witness or a victim, you may not know what to do to stop it.

What you can do to prevent microaggression

  1. “Notice what you notice” when you see someone for the first time. Your brain will automatically try to pigeonhole the person into a particular category. 
  2. Question your personal biases. If you question the assumptions your brain makes, you’ll avoid stereotypes based on how someone looks.
  3. Take responsibility for any underlying biases you hold, and take steps to become more educated and understanding. This could include reading history and researching other cultures.
  4. Empathize and be a good listener. Believe people when they tell you they’re treated differently because of who they are, and believe them when they tell you how they feel.
  5. Show that you care. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand where they’re coming from.
  6. Be respectful. Be inclusive. Support diversity in your workplace.
  7. Be an ally. Show that you hear and value your co-workers by giving credit when credit is due.
  8. Be an advocate. Stand up and speak out when you see microaggression happening.
  9. Commit to changing your own microaggressive behaviour. Pause to think before you speak or act.

How you can deal with microaggression

What to do if you’re a victim

Confronting microaggression can be a challenge, but ignoring it can lead to even bigger misunderstandings. That being said, whether or not you call out every instance of microaggression you experience is a very personal decision. There is no single correct way to respond.

Here are 5 steps to take if you encounter microaggression in your workplace.

1. Decide if you’ll take action or let things go

It's not always practical to respond to microaggression. Sometimes it’s important to stand up for yourself and hold others accountable for their behaviour. Sometimes it’s better to step away.

Keep in mind that speaking up and staying silent both have consequences. Only you can decide what’s best for you.

Factors to consider
  1. Will speaking up put your safety in danger?
  2. Will your co-worker get angry or defensive? Will this lead to an argument?
  3. How important is the issue and your relationship with the person?
  4. How will responding affect your relationship with the person?
  5. Will the person (or your supervisor or co-workers) retaliate against you? If you’re worried, document the incident and whatever actions you take. Be sure to have witnesses when you make your move.
  6. How will you feel if you don’t respond? Will you regret not saying something?
  7. How much energy do you want to invest in taking a stand?
  8. How do you want to be perceived? If you don’t respond, will people think you’re OK with what happened?

2. Decide if you’ll act immediately or at a later date

Responding immediately lets you call out the incident while it’s fresh in everyone’s mind. That can make it easier for the person who caused harm to acknowledge their error and take steps to change their behaviour. But responding immediately can also be risky. The person might get defensive and make you feel like an overly sensitive troublemaker who has lost control.

On the other hand, if you wait to respond, the person who caused harm may no longer recall the incident and may not appreciate the impact it had on you or others. You might be labelled as a petty person who can’t move on, while the other person becomes someone who meant no harm and is wrongly accused.

3. Figure out your plan of action

  1. Take time to collect your thoughts and plan what you want to say. Practise with friends.
  2. Assume the best about people. Since microaggression is often unintentional, some researchers advise taking a positive approach. This assumes that the person who dished out microaggression intended no harm. Start your conversation by saying, “I’m really curious. I want to understand why you said what you did.” Or, “I’m not sure if you’re aware, but this is how your comment made me feel. Was that your intention?”
  3. Invite the person to sit with you and explore what motivated their behaviour. Explain that it might be uncomfortable for them, but that their words or actions were uncomfortable for you.
  4. Ask probing questions. Challenge the person. Let them know what was said and done and how it hurt you. Insist that they clarify what they meant by their words or actions.
  5. Be direct. Use “I” statements to help the person understand how their behaviour affected you. For example, “When you called me a Boomer, I felt hurt.”
  6. Let the person know how their words or actions made you feel. Remember to criticize the behaviour, not the person.
  7. Be professional. Stick to the facts.
  8. Let the person know what you need them to do to make things right. Most often, a simple apology is enough.

4. Get help if you need it

If your conversations to stop microaggression have had no effect, it’s time to get management involved. If your supervisors can’t help—or if they’re the ones who are causing the problem—you may need to take your case to HR.

5. Control your reaction

If you are a victim of microaggression, decide what matters to you and protect who you are. Don’t let a co-worker’s negative behaviour chip away at your self-esteem, and don’t let anyone else set the standard for who you are as a person.

Be sure to acknowledge your feelings—anger, disappointment, frustration, confusion, embarrassment, exhaustion, or whatever they may be.

Take control over your feelings and decide how the incident will affect you. Take care of yourself. Seek out supportive friends and colleagues. Don’t let microaggression bring you down.

What to do if you’re a witness

Microaggression doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It affects everyone who shares a workplace, and it colours the entire workplace culture.

That’s why it’s important to step up and speak out when someone stereotypes people or makes an insensitive comment. If you don’t speak out, you’re sending a message that microaggression is OK. You’re saying you think what happened was acceptable.

Speaking out against microaggression can break the cycle. In fact, speaking out as a witness can be more influential than speaking out as a victim. As a witness, you won’t just be dismissed as an over-sensitive complainer.

TIP: Be an ally and supporter, but only speak for yourself

When you speak out against microaggression, say how it made you feel. Don’t assume you know how it made the recipient feel, and don’t try to speak on that person’s behalf. It’s disrespectful and dehumanizing.

What to do if you’re the cause

We all like to think of ourselves as good people who play fair, so it can be hard to admit that something we’ve said or done is insensitive or hurtful.

If you’ve said or done something that hurt another person—or if someone has accused you of doing so—follow these steps to make things right:

  1. Take a moment to breathe and calm yourself. Understand that making a mistake doesn’t make you a bad person.
  2. Acknowledge the other person’s hurt. Respond with compassion, respect, humility, and concern.
  3. Be a good listener and make sure the other person feels heard.
  4. Don’t be defensive and don’t make it about you. Remember that co-workers who confront you about your behaviour are taking a risk in sharing their feelings.
  5. Be grateful when your co-workers trust you enough to have called you out. This means they think you can be a better person.
  6. Apologize and be sincere about it. Don’t make excuses. Don’t say “I’m sorry if I offended you”—the “if” makes you sound insincere. Don’t say “I’m sorry you felt offended,” because that doesn’t count.
  7. Try to understand why your words or actions were hurtful. Sometimes your co-worker will tell you and sometimes you’ll need to do your own homework to figure it out. Search the internet or ask other people to help you understand.
  8. Treat the incident as a learning opportunity. Take responsibility for learning about your own privileges and prejudices so you don’t make the same mistake again.
  9. Commit to doing better in the future, and keep working on it.
  10. Consider following up later. Reach out to let your co-worker know that you care and that you’re grateful to them for sharing their feelings.
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