While all employees and managers should know about microaggressions and the harm they can do, employees who serve as workplace allies to members of marginalized or underrepresented groups have a special role in preventing these subtle indignities, slights and insults from derailing efforts to improve diversity and inclusion.
Microaggressions may appear to be a compliment or an attempt at humor, but they convey hidden messages, often stemming from unconscious biases, that perpetuate stereotypes about someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability or other characteristics.
Whether communicated in-person or in a virtual work environment, these derogatory, hostile messages can have negative consequences on an employee’s level of engagement, productivity and mental and physical health.
Here are 5 ways that workplace allies can be a positive force in stopping microaggressions and promoting a culture of inclusion.
1. Raising awareness
Like other workplace behaviors, awareness is the first step in addressing and preventing these ‘subtle acts of exclusion’ — another term for microaggressions coined by diversity and inclusion consultants Dr. Tiffany Jana and Dr. Michael Baran. Allies are in position to raise awareness of the different types of microaggressions and remind us (nonjudgmentally) that anyone can unintentionally commit them.
2. Speaking up
In general, allies should speak up against microaggressive behavior. Factoring in timing and circumstances, there are different strategies that allies can use for responding without putting the initiator on the defensive. For example, an ally might say, “Your comment about Laurel’s hair made me feel uncomfortable. Did you really mean that?” Or interject during a team chat where a co-worker is constantly being interrupted, “I’d like to hear more about Shay’s idea. Could we let him finish?”
3. Providing honest feedback
Allies are also in a position to give management honest feedback on what they are seeing and hearing about microaggressions and unconscious bias and encourage leadership to seek out new voices, who can offer fresh perspectives on how to make the organization’s policies and practices more inclusive.
4. Expressing empathy and compassion
Empathy and compassion are valuable qualities at any time. Especially now, when so many employees are working remotely due to COVID-19, allies who have the ability to be empathetic and compassionate can help underrepresented co-workers feel less isolated. By regularly communicating and checking in, allies can offer a safe space for marginalized employees to ask questions and raise concerns about microaggressions and other challenges they are facing.
5. Opening doors
As part of the process of supporting targets of microaggressions, allies can open doors to opportunities by promoting the ideas and contributions of underrepresented employees, recommending them for assignments and projects outside of the usual ‘inside’ group and sharing insights and practical tips for getting more visibility and navigating the organizational landscape.
As advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion, workplace allies can make an impact on how organizations address and reduce microaggressions — those subtle insults and slights, often unintentional, that can make underrepresented or marginalized employees feel they don’t belong or their ideas aren’t valued. Training employees on how to recognize and respond to different forms of microaggressions should be part of a comprehensive approach to fostering a culture of inclusion and allyship.