Microaggressions are subtle but harmful forms of discrimination that are often experienced by marginalised individuals in the workplace, on the basis of their identity. These can range from insensitive comments about someone's gender, caste, sexual orientation, etc, to assumptions and perpetuating stereotypes. While these may seem like minor incidents, the cumulative effect of microaggressions can have a serious impact on an individual's mental health and job satisfaction.
Repeated exposure to microaggressions can erode self-esteem, create a hostile work environment, and perpetuate feelings of marginalisation, ultimately leading to a lacklustre participation in workplace development, decreased productivity, and potentially, difficulty in retaining employees. The emotional toll of constantly encountering subtle forms of bias can also lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.
If you’re still unsure, here’s what they can look and sound like:
- Delegating organisational tasks, like planning an office party, to women on the presumption that women are better at doing it. Read about office housework.
- Using casteist and classist slurs (knowingly or unknowingly) as a part of everyday vocabulary.
- Telling people from semi-rural or rural areas that they speak English so well for someone from a small town.
- “You don’t look like a transwoman”, “you look too pretty to be trans”, or making assumptions about someone’s sexuality and gender identity based on stereotypes.
- When an assertive woman boss is considered spiteful, but an assertive male boss is exhibiting ‘strong leadership’. In a similar vein, saying “Why are you so hyper? Is it that time of the month?” to women who may express anger.
These are just some examples of what microaggressions can be, but broadly, it covers passive aggression, cold treatment, hostile verbal and non-verbal remarks, etc. They’re also a lot more common than you may think: According to a Deloitte report from 2022, almost 60% of women in corporate jobs have complained of encountering microaggressions at the workplace. However, women reported these behaviours only 31% of the time, saying that they did not feel it was serious enough to report. Gender is only one dimension of the issue though, and empirical data on diverse marginalised groups is lacking.
Because of our lack of awareness of microaggressions (the word itself is not new and was coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970, but entered the workplace lexicon not too long ago), the brunt of dealing with them falls on those at the receiving end, who do not have certain socio-economic privileges. As we delve into this issue, it is essential to acknowledge that the conversation surrounding privilege is not as black and white as it may seem. Employees can be advantaged in some aspects while simultaneously facing disadvantages in others. Recognising this complexity allows us to approach the topic with empathy and understanding, and shifts the focus to navigating the issue and making employees feel respected.
Why companies should care?
Let’s face it, for too long, the workplace has been traditionally exclusionary to a host of different people. In many ways, an employee’s success largely depends on gender, class, caste, and ability, amongst other factors. To effectively foster good workplace culture workplaces have to be flexible, evolve with time, and more importantly, they have to be safe.
Microaggressions may appear insignificant on their own, but their aggregated effect is profound. Organisations that fail to address workplace microaggressions risk losing out on the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce. When individuals feel valued and supported, they are more likely to contribute their unique perspectives, resulting in better decision-making, innovation, and creativity. Inclusive workplaces foster collaboration, trust, and a sense of belonging, which enhances employee morale and satisfaction, ultimately leading to improved performance and long-term success.
For X, who had an invisible physical disability, repeated microaggressions were what ultimately made him quit his job. “Despite my company saying they were flexible and offering me a good sick leave policy, my manager took constant jibes at me about how I was probably faking being sick. I knew I had to move on from my job when I spent more time convincing my manager instead of doing my actual work. Moreover, since my role was not a front-facing one, and I had requested a hybrid work-from-home setup, which was not granted. I still don’t understand how they could call themselves flexible.”
Dealing with microaggressions at work.
It may seem insignificant, but acknowledging that microaggressions exist and have a detrimental impact on individuals and the workplace is the crucial first step towards dealing with them. This isn’t to say that once solved, the problem will not return; but that a workplace is flexible enough to accommodate for an employee’s well-being.
1) Challenging Unconscious Bias
Many individuals unknowingly perpetuate microaggressions due to an unconscious bias. By raising awareness and engaging in open conversations, organisations can begin to dismantle these harmful patterns and create a more inclusive work environment.
Educating employees about the impact of microaggressions and promoting empathy can help break down barriers and encourage respectful interactions. Training programs that address unconscious bias and foster cultural competence can equip individuals with the knowledge and tools to challenge their own assumptions and behaviours. These training programs can be included while onboarding new recruits, and must be a part of any employee handbook.
Q, a queer individual in a largely heterosexual work environment, says that “Companies are good at getting the ‘serious’ stuff out of the way - training on sexual harassment, verbal abuse, etc is something that all employees are given, and must be given. However it’s the so-called ‘insignificant’ issues that aren’t discussed. I’m lucky that I’ve never faced a more dangerous type of discrimination, but I’m quite frustrated with the smaller jokes people make about the queer community without knowing that I’m a part of the community itself. Can’t we include these in trainings too? When I went to HR, I was told that these comments are too trivial to constitute verbal abuse”.
2) Promoting Accountability and Empowerment
Creating a safe and inclusive workplace requires a shared responsibility among all employees, not just employers. It is essential to empower individuals to speak up when they witness or experience microaggressions. This can be facilitated through anonymous reporting mechanisms, supportive HR policies, and transparent procedures for addressing complaints. Furthermore, promoting allyship and active bystander intervention can be powerful tools for combating microaggressions. Encouraging individuals to actively support and advocate for marginalised colleagues sends a clear message that discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated.
3) Model leadership
Leadership plays a crucial role in setting the tone for inclusive behaviour. By modelling inclusive practices, promoting diversity in leadership positions, and implementing inclusive policies, employers can foster an environment where microaggressions are less likely to occur.
When Z started her own company in the sustainability space, she admits she didn’t factor in microaggressions when thinking about workplace culture. “During the initial phase of my entrepreneurial journey, I was more focused on product, revenue, and marketing. It was only when an employee wrote to me about how some workplace policies weren’t inclusive enough did I have the chance to introspect. I’m so focused on sustainability, and yet, didn’t think about how to make my workplace sustainable in the long run. This has since changed.”
In a world fuelled by the zeal to maximise productivity, we are often expected to leave our identities out of the door when we enter the workplace. For people who are marginalised, it’s not realistic - or possible. Estimates say that we spend about 90,000 hours at work, or about a third of our lives. To create a future-proof workplace, it therefore makes strategic sense to invest resources in fostering a diverse work environment.