Tips to Address Workplace Microaggressions
By Marie Haraburda
What are microaggressions and how can career practitioners best advise clients about receiving, witnessing, or possibly sending out these subtle biases in the workplace? Microaggressions are a form of prejudice aimed at members of marginalized groups. These are offhanded comments, attempts at jokes, slights, or snubs towards those who are female, ethnic minorities, LGTBQ, the disabled, immigrants, or members of other marginalized groups (Chase-Sosnoff, 2022).
Microaggressions often come from well-intended colleagues who might not comprehend the true meaning of their messages (Spicer, 2020). Some examples include assuming that an older worker doesn’t understand technology or neglecting to accommodate a coworker with a disability. This could also include comments that were intended as compliments, such as stating that a Black colleague is “so articulate,” or telling a non-native coworker that they “speak good English” (Chase-Sosnoff, 2022).
Microaggressions happen among all workers and members of marginalized groups have been known to send microaggressions to coworkers in other targeted groups (Alexander, 2021). Lower job satisfaction, increased absenteeism, and higher turnover of employees are issues that have been reported as a result of workplace microaggressions (Chase-Sosnoff, 2022).
It can be human nature to take note of differences with others, but learning to be a supportive ally impacts the workplace culture with positivity. Talking about microaggressions helps to promote authenticity at work and builds trust among colleagues (Spicer, 2020). Career practitioners can advise clients to be aware of microaggressions and have conversations around them. This can include coaching clients to get out of their comfort zone, teaching them how to recognize and call out microaggressions in the workplace, and promoting connectiveness (Alexander, 2021).
What if the client is on the receiving end of a microaggression? Or, what if the client witnesses a colleague using a microaggression toward a coworker? Practitioners can share the following tips with their clients:
For clients receiving microaggressions
- Validate the feelings of the client (Alexander, 2021). What does the client think was the motive behind the slight? How will the client move forward with the coworker?
- Discuss that is it healthy to talk about differences. Have practice conversations with the client on how to address it with the coworker. What steps can they take to encourage a healthy conversation while avoiding getting defensive (Alexander, 2021)? What does the client want their coworker to understand?
- Guide the client how to prepare to respond in the moment, should it happen again, and how to express to the coworker how it affects them. Suggest to the client that if they feel triggered in the moment, they can take time to calm down and address it later (Alexander, 2021).
For clients who have committed microaggressions
- Hold a practice conversation. How will the client broach the topic with their coworker? What is the best time and place to talk to the coworker about this? Advise the client to listen with empathy to how the coworker responds.
- Help the client outline a communication strategy. They can validate the coworker’s feelings and apologize (Alexander, 2021). Let the coworker know that they did not mean any harm and demonstrate that they want to develop a good rapport with the coworker.
- Advise the client to listen to the coworker without arguing or getting defensive. The client also might ask the coworker to hold them accountable with corrections in the future (Alexander, 2021).
- Guide the client to be pro-active and make a private list for self-reflection about biases and assumptions they are making in the workplace. What will they consciously do to prevent microaggressions in the future?
- Discuss with the client what it means to be an ally in the workplace. An ally is someone who provides empathetic support to those who are discriminated against. Allyship involves taking action by educating and challenging members of their own group (Spicer, 2020).
For clients who have witnessed microaggressions
- Guide clients to stand up for others and diplomatically discuss what has occurred. Practice an example of a healthy conversation around a sensitive topic. How can the client support both coworkers in a healthy way without rendering blame or shame?
- Advise clients to be proactive and find out what training might be offered at work for employees to ward off microaggressions before they occur.
- Provide the client with tips for allies, including listening, self-reflection about their own biases, focusing on bigger goals, building trust, and taking action (Spicer, 2020).
The Impact of Microaggressions on the Workplace
If not addressed, microaggressions can destroy the self-esteem of the recipient and create a culture that disregards inclusion and ruins trust. This leads to low morale, decreased productivity, and potential lawsuits (SHRM, 2022). Organizations are realizing the impact of microaggressions and building on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives to educate workers, support members of marginalized groups, and promote equity in the workplace (SHRM, 2022).
Steps that employers are taking include:
- Offering Human Resources department training and team-building exercises to help combat microaggressions
- Establishing diversity teams to provide communication and education on microaggressions
- Engaging coworkers in DEI conversations, training, and allyship
- Clarify measurable goals and contributing factors of a DEI program
- Communicate the impact of DEI on the company’s revenues (SHRM2022).
Microaggressions have a negative effect on employees, whether they are giving them, receiving them, or witnessing them. Learning to recognize microaggressions and how to diplomatically hold discussions around them helps create a healthier workplace culture that promotes trust and inclusion – all of which help to increase the company’s bottom line.
Alexander, S. (2021, October 10). How to respond to microaggressions: How good people cause harm and what to do about it. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/opening-the-door/202110/how-respond-microaggressions
Chase-Sosnoff, S. (2022, January 18). How to recognize, stop microaggressions at work. HR Daily Advisor. https://hrdailyadvisor.blr.com/2022/01/18/how-to-recognize-stop-microaggressions-at-work/
SHRM. (2022). How to develop a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative. https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/how-to-guides/pages/enterprise-develop-dei-initiative.aspx
Spicer, A. (2020, June 30). The psychology of being a better ally in the office – and beyond. The Conversation.com. https://theconversation.com/the-psychology-of-being-a-better-ally-in-the-office-and-beyond-140902
Marie Haraburda, GCDF, is a private practice career coach consultant contracted with organizations such as REA-Partners in Transition and the Indiana University Alumni Association. A former career coach with the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, Marie has presented on the topic of international students at NCDA annual conferences, is a founding member of the NCDA International Career Services and has served on the NCDA Awards Committee. Marie volunteers as a coach mentor for high school students through Project Ready with the Indianapolis Urban League and is an inaugural member of the Skillful Indiana Governor’s Coaching Corps. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org