There’s nothing “micro” about the impact of microaggressions. Rooted in unconscious bias, microaggressions are everyday slights, snubs or insults — often unintentional and well-intended — that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to individuals of a marginalized group. Training employees to recognize and safely respond to microaggressions in the workplace is one of the proactive steps organizations can take to raise awareness and stop these negative behaviors that can cause real harm and undermine efforts to foster an inclusive and respectful workplace.
What are different forms of microaggressions?
Microaggressions are often based on someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or other characteristics. When microaggressions persist, people on the receiving end may feel judged, misunderstood, excluded, unwelcome and unsafe. Employees who are subjected to microaggressions often become disengaged at work, experience burnout and other mental and physical health issues.
Microaggressions can take many different forms. The three main categories are verbal, nonverbal and environmental.
- Verbal microaggressions – A verbal microaggression is a comment or question that belittles members of a certain marginalized group or perpetuates a stereotype. For example, telling a Black co-worker, “You’re so articulate” or asking an Asian colleague, “How long have you been in the United States?”
- Nonverbal microaggressions – Nonverbal microaggressions are expressed through body language, facial expressions or gestures that convey hurtful or discriminatory messages to a certain group of people. For example, eye rolling at older co-workers’ stories or holding a handbag closer to one’s body when a person of color approaches.
- Environmental microaggressions – Environmental microaggressions occur on a systemic level, such as a work environment that belittles women or makes marginalized or underrepresented groups feel unwelcome.
When and how to respond to microaggressions
Even folks with the best intentions can make mistakes and inadvertently say or do something hurtful. Microaggressions training helps employees understand what microaggressions are, how to identify different forms of microaggressions and practical ways to prevent them from reoccurring.
For targets of microaggressions, training offers insights and practical tips for deciding when and how to react. Whether responding immediately or later, it’s important to stay calm and explain to the microaggressor why their comments are offensive, without putting them on the defensive, and help them become more aware and empathetic. Underrepresented people should also be empowered to be an ally to members of their group, and support other marginalized colleagues.
For bystanders of microaggressions, it’s knowing how and when to apply bystander intervention techniques, and showing support for co-workers who are on the receiving end of microaggressions. Training can also help people who regularly commit microaggressions become more aware of their behavior and its harmful effects and develop empathy and respect for co-workers from other cultures, backgrounds and experiences.
Left unchecked, microaggressions take a toll on employees’ health and wellbeing and undermine DEI progress. As part of fostering a respectful, inclusive work culture, microaggressions training raises awareness of these everyday slights, indignities and insults, and helps to empower employees to stop microaggressions and be allies to marginalized or underrepresented co-workers.
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