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Microaggression in the Workplace

Microaggressions are common, everyday actions and behaviours that are harmful and hurtful to other people.

Unlike other types of discrimination, microaggression is unconscious. People who do it generally don’t realize they’re doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, even if no harm was intended, microaggression affects people’s health and well-being. It creates a dysfunctional workplace environment.

What is microaggression?

Microaggression is a kind of prejudice. It refers to everyday comments, actions, and behaviour that make people feel different or excluded.

Microaggression is directed at people who are already pushed to the edges of society because they are different in some way. They may be different because they have a disability. Or because of their race, class, nationality, religion, colour, age, weight, gender, or sexual orientation.

On the surface, insensitive comments and behaviour directed at people who are different can seem harmless. But they’re not. Especially when people have to put up with them day after day.

Microaggression happens when what seems like harmless comments to one person begins to feel like subtle, repeated, quiet jabs to another. It reflects the deep-seated, unconscious biases and stereotypes of the people who do the jabbing. For the people on the receiving end, it’s a constant reminder that they are “other.” They are different in some way. Their identity is neither respected nor valued.

For some groups of people, this is a daily experience they’ve put up with all their lives. Over time, the harm adds up. The more often people experience microaggression, the more it affects their well-being. It creates anxiety about how other people see them, and it makes them wonder if they really belong.

People who experience microaggression often suffer in silence. But it’s hard to do your work and be productive when you always feel like a misfit. It’s also hard to build inclusive teams and workplaces when people feel left out.

Types of microaggression

Microaggression can take many forms. It can be words, actions, behaviour, signs, or gestures.

Microaggression in the workplace can be caused by a specific person. It can result from an organization designed to keep specific groups from getting ahead. For example, only allowing certain people to work on high-profile projects can send the message that only some employees’ contributions are valued.

Examples of microaggression

Microaggression can be hard to pinpoint. What’s tricky is that a comment or joke or gesture that is perfectly fine in one situation can be hurtful and negative in another. Context is important.

The following examples demonstrate microaggression directed at specific groups, like women, people with disabilities, people who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, and others.

1. Judging a woman as bossy or pushy when she speaks with authority.

  • This is demeaning, especially if a man would be praised if he said the same thing. It devalues a woman’s leadership style and management skills.

2. Telling a racist or sexist joke and then saying, “I was just joking.”

  • Jokes that mock or degrade people are never appropriate—even when the joker doesn’t mean to offend. Jokes like this perpetuate negative stereotypes.

3. Asking someone “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”

  • Assuming that people weren’t born in Canada can make them feel like outsiders.

4. Dismissing people as oversensitive. For example, saying “I’m not being homophobic (or racist, or sexist). You’re just being too sensitive.”

  • When someone lets you know they felt disrespected or discriminated against by something you said, interrupting to talk about your own experience or to contradict what’s being shared is microaggression.

5. Asking invasive questions like, “Why do you wear that?” or “Don’t all Muslim women wear a hijab?”

  • Making fun of someone’s clothing or cultural practices is rude, insensitive and disrespectful. It makes people feel like they don’t

6. Telling a person with a disability “you’re so brave” or “just be positive.”

  • Comments like this stem from a societal belief that having no disability is a sign of strength and that having a disability is not normal.

7. Calling someone “he” or “she” without knowing their preferred pronoun,or deliberately not using a transgender person’s preferred pronouns.

  • Addressing someone in a way that incorrectly reflects their gender identity is disrespectful.

8. Asking someone what they looked like before they transitioned or making comments like “You're beautiful for a transgender girl.”

  • Inappropriately personal questions and comments can be intrusive, offensive, and painful.

9. Asking a young person, “Were you even born when this happened?” or assuming that an older person has never heard of Twitter or Snapchat.

  • Negative stereotypes based on age can keep people from getting hired. Ageism directed at older people can be isolating. Reverse ageism can mean that younger people get less pay than they deserve.

10. Making assumptions about people’s occupations on the basis of their gender. For example, assuming that a woman who walks into a meeting room is a secretary who will take notes. Or assuming that a woman who works in a hospital is a nurse when she’s really a doctor.

  • Assumptions like this reflect an unconscious bias that reflects our society.

Why does microaggression happen?

Microaggression is rooted in bias. Like it or not, we all carry bias. No one is immune.

Biases are the attitudes and beliefs that come from our life experiences. They are influenced by our families when we are growing up, by the people we interact with, and even by the TV shows we watch. And they’re reinforced by society.

Sometimes we hold biases without knowing it. They include the assumptions we make about people based on stereotypes related to their age, gender, sexuality or race. If we’re not careful, these assumptions they can cause us to act in ways that can be hurtful to others.

Here’s why.

When we meet someone new, our brains try to fit the person into categories that already exist in our heads. If the person is different from us in age or gender or any other category, our brain automatically notes the difference. That’s normal. Usually it’s not a problem, but sometimes our brains get stuck.

When we get stuck, our brains hyper-focus on what makes the person different from us. This can make us anxious, uncomfortable, and even fearful. It can reinforce the assumptions we have about people and trap us in harmful stereotypes.

The good news is that we can retrain our brains. We can learn to address the biases that lead to microaggression. And we can take steps to change our behaviour.

What is the impact of microaggression?

Effects on people

Research shows that microaggression is at least as harmful as racism, bullying, and sexual harassment. Some research suggests that microaggression is even more harmful and stressful than direct discrimination.

Individual acts of microaggression may seem like nothing much. But the effects add up over time. Eventually, small, constant hurts can affect someone’s health and well-being. They can cause high blood pressure, sleeping problems, substance abuse, eating disorders, exhaustion, depression, and self-doubt.

Microaggression can have macro impact

Some researchers believe the term “micro” minimizes the harm and serious, long-term damage caused by subtle prejudice, stereotypes, and negative words and actions. They suggest that “exclusionary behaviour” is a better term.

Experiencing microaggression can hurt people’s feelings and make them feel like they don’t belong. Feeling disrespected and unvalued can keep people from reaching their full potential. It can affect their workplace experiences, prevent them from moving ahead, and affect their earning power and their standard of living.

Effects on workplaces

Microaggression can create a workplace environment that makes people feel unwelcome, ignored, and devalued. It makes them feel out of place. It makes them feel like they don’t belong. When people constantly feel on edge, it’s harder to solve problems and be productive. This can have a negative impact on work performance on team dynamics. And it can create a workplace environment filled with hostility and distrust.

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