It can be easy to forget that our words and actions can significantly impact other people. In some cases, what may seem like a harmless remark or gesture can actually be a form of microaggression.
What are microaggressions, and why is it important to recognize them?
Microaggressions are those subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) slights and snubs that can make life feel harder for marginalized people. They're often so commonplace that they barely register with the person dishing them out, making them all the more insidious.
But make no mistake: microaggressions add up, and they can take a serious toll on mental health and create a hostile work environment. That's why it's important to be aware of them and to do our best to avoid inflicting them on others.
What are examples of microaggressions in the workplace?
Here are 10 examples of microaggressions in the workplace that you might not be aware of:
1. Expecting minoritized ethnicities to take care of diversity and inclusion initiatives
It's a common scene in many workplaces: the one Black or Indigenous person in the room is tasked with developing a plan for diversity and inclusion. This is a racial microaggression and unfairly places the responsibility for diversity and inclusion on those most affected.
2. Asking people where they're from as if they don't 'belong' here
Nothing is wrong with being curious and wondering about someone's heritage. But asking someone where they're from in a way that others them and points out their differences, can make them feel unwelcome in the workplace. If you want to get to know your colleagues, try asking them about their hobbies or interests.
3. Paying men more than women in the same role
This microaggression sends the message that men are worth more than women and perpetuates the idea that women are not as good as men at their jobs.
4. Asking to touch a Black person's hair as opposed to admiring it
Asking to touch a Black woman or man's hair can be seen as a way of objectifying or othering. Being interested in their hair texture and how it differs from yours may be sincere. However, this gesture can be perceived as a form of fetishization that reduces them to a physical attribute, and questions their professional image.
5. Complimenting minoritized ethnicities and bilingual colleagues on their articulateness
There's nothing wrong with wanting to compliment someone. But if you find yourself regularly complimenting minoritized colleagues on their articulateness, you are suggesting that their ability to speak well is unexpected or out of the ordinary. This can send the message that you view them as subordinate or inferior to those who don't have to overcome the same linguistic barriers.
6. Describing Black women as aggressive
Assertiveness is a quality that's often admired in the workplace, especially in male leaders. But thanks to the "angry Black women" stereotype, people misinterpret Black women's assertiveness for aggression instead of confidence and great leadership qualities.
7. Assuming someone's sexual orientation and using gender specific language in a group
With the growing visibility of non-binary people, it's more important than ever to be aware of the importance of using general language that doesn't assume another's gender like 'guys' or 'ladies'. More thoughtful terms like folks, friends, or everyone, avoids making assumptions about someone's sexual orientation when in a group.
8. Mispronouncing or misspelling someone's name consistently
Getting someone's name wrong over and over again sends the message that their name is unimportant, that they are so unimportant that you don't need to ask. If you're unsure how to pronounce a name, ask to show some respect.
9. Assuming all disabled people need the same adjustments
Labels tend to harm in that they are used to group folk together that are similar dismissing their uniqueness. Assuming that all disabled people need the same accommodations is foolish when there are a variety of physical mental and social disabilities. Do not invalidate their unique needs and experiences.
10. Treating ageism like a joke
Ageism is a serious problem in the West where youth is valued more than wisdom. Unlike some other cultures, joking about one's age is commonplace and can have real consequences for older workers. Whether you make assumptions about their ability to use technology, or call them over-the-hill, it is a microaggression.
Are you ready to have tough conversations about microaggressions in the workplace?
We've identified some key areas to focus on in order to minimize the microaggressions taking place in your company. Understanding the bias we all have from the cultural training we've endured is a start. And unlearning some of the cultural and even corporate expectations that lead us to thinking in one way, and unable to see other perspectives is often at the heart of many of the microaggressions discussed above.
Are you willing to call out the elephant in the room when it happens? Let's set up a call where we can discuss how to do that effectively and move your team forward to less reacting and more proacting.