As remote and hybrid work environments become more widely accepted and adopted worldwide, many employers are discovering a troubling yet far too common problem: microaggression. This refers to discrimination at work, often unconsciously, through subtle actions and unfriendly or disrespectful statements.
Unfortunately, these occurrences are often dismissed as innocuous, but they can impact an individual's psychological well-being and job performance. As such, employers need to be aware of this issue and take steps to mitigate its presence in their work environment.
Even though employees work from home, some are experiencing a significant rise in workplace hostility. The anonymity provided by remote workplaces can make it easier for perpetrators of microaggressions to engage in discriminatory behavior without fear of repercussion or exposure.
Additionally, with workers now largely communicating through online messaging platforms like Slack, Zoom, or Google Workspace, there is an increased potential for misinterpretation, which may lead to unintended slights or insults being uttered without knowledge of their impact.
In this article, we'll examine how microaggressions can manifest in the workplace, why it is an important issue, and discuss strategies for mitigating its presence.
What are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions are subtle, everyday slights, snubs, or insults directed at a person because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristics. They can be intentional or unintentional; while they may seem minor, their impact can be significant.
Microaggressions can come in many forms, such as verbal comments ("You're not like other people from your department."), body language (rolling of the eyes or crossing arms when talking to someone from a particular group), exclusion from activities by peers, assumptions about one's identity or abilities, and even jokes and other humor that belittle or ignore someone's background.
How Do Microaggressions Impact the Workplace?
Microaggressions can have a severe impact on individuals in the workplace. They may feel isolated and excluded, leading to decreased productivity, feelings of inadequacy, and even mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.
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In addition, microaggressions may create an environment of mistrust and hostility between employees from different backgrounds or perspectives. This can negatively affect collaboration and communication, decreasing morale and increasing stress.
In a remote or hybrid work environment, these issues can even worsen.
Distance and communication barriers can make it difficult to detect and address microaggressions in the traditional sense, as body language and subtle social cues are harder to read when interacting remotely. Professional boundaries may also be blurred as employees work from home, leading to even more disconnection between coworkers.
According to a study, if faced with a microaggression, 70% of workers would feel upset, and half would think of quitting their job. Similarly, Sprout's Study titled, The Great Resignation Part 2: The Journey to the Great Retention, revealed that 24% of those surveyed left their jobs because of unhealthy work environments.
This just shows how problematic microaggressions can be and why employers must take action to ensure they are properly addressed. By creating an environment of mutual respect, understanding, and trust, companies can foster a positive work culture that allows a variety of perspectives to thrive.
Common Microaggressions in the Workplace
There are various types of microaggressions in the workplace, and the most frequent ones include microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.
Such forms of microaggressions can impact an individual's sense of belongingness and social recognition both in their work environment and personal life. This can impede their capacity to attain their utmost potential and perceive acceptance as significant members of society.
Some may not be aware that they have crossed the line by showing insensitivity or bias towards someone's age, class, disability, gender, nationality, race, religion, or sexual orientation, as the subject is not commonly discussed in everyday conversations.
A microassault is a deliberate act of discrimination or criticism aimed at discrediting a marginalized group.
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It involves indirect insults, belittling or bullying behavior, and historically offensive symbols and slurs related to race, religion, or sexuality. This behavior conveys that the marginalized group is inferior and deserving of mistreatment.
In the hybrid workplace, it could mean that some employees are not given time off work based on their identity, or that the opinions of a marginalized group are ignored and dismissed.
This kind of behavior can be extremely damaging as it perpetuates stereotypes and reinforces the idea that certain groups are undeserving of respect, recognition, and success.
A microinsult is a comment that may seem like a compliment to the person saying it, but it communicates a lack of respect for a particular group.
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The target of the comment is viewed as an exception to negative stereotypes associated with their group. The person making the microinsult may not even know they are insulting someone due to their unconscious biases or prejudices.
For example, a manager may tell an employee of color in a Zoom meeting that they "speak very good English," unintentionally implying that their language skills are unusual or surprising.
This conveys the assumption that people from certain backgrounds cannot speak proper English and perpetuates stereotypes about minority groups.
Additionally, excluding someone can also be a microinsult. This can happen when a woman is judged as "harsh" for speaking confidently or when her contributions are ignored or talked over in meetings, even though the same behavior is encouraged by her male colleagues.
Microinvalidation is when someone comments or behaves in a way that ignores the experiences of people in historically disadvantaged groups. This often happens when marginalized group members try to speak up about their obstacles.
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Unfortunately, instead of being taken seriously, they are often ignored, undermined, or ridiculed by others who didn't have the same experiences or who don't want to draw attention to themselves and become targets too.
For example, a woman may bring up the issue of sexism in her workplace and is dismissed by her colleagues with comments such as "You're just being too sensitive" or "That's not really a problem." This invalidates the woman's experiences and those of other women who have experienced similar workplace issues.
Here are more examples of microaggressions that employees may encounter:
- "But where are you really from?" This question is often directed toward individuals who are minorities and wrongly assumed to be immigrants.
- Saying "Do you speak English?" to a person who may have an accent that suggests they are from another country.
- "I didn't realize you were Muslim; you don't look like one."; implying that the person thinks a specific appearance is associated with Muslim heritage.
- "You don't look like you grew up poor to me." This implies that certain qualities or behaviors are associated with different social classes.
Gender and Sexual Orientation
- "That's such a manly thing to do"; this implies that men are somehow superior or more capable than women.
- "You don't look gay" means that there is one specific physical appearance associated with sexual orientation.
- "You should smile more" implies that women must be pleasant and happy, regardless of their personal feelings.
- "Just get over it" implies that mental health challenges are not a big problem.
- "You are so sensitive"; this invalidates and belittles the emotions of those who suffer from depression or anxiety.
- "You don't look depressed"; this implies that there is a certain physical appearance associated with mental illness.
Increase Awareness on Microaggressions
In a remote or hybrid work environment, microaggressions can be challenging to detect and manage. As a business owner, becoming aware of microaggressions and understanding how to solve them is essential for creating a safe and productive workspace.
Become aware of the signs of microaggressions.
These can range from subtle words, comments, and dismissive or belittling behaviors to overt discrimination or harassment. It is essential to recognize that microaggressions are not always intentional and can often stem from unconscious bias.
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Some words and phrases have historically favored dominant groups in society. As a result, our everyday speech may contain elements of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.
For instance, we should be mindful of specific workplace terms that may have hurtful connotations.
- A "blacklist" lists things with negative connotations, while a "whitelist" lists positive ones.
- The phrase "man up" suggests that being a man is synonymous with being strong or competent.
- The term "peanut gallery" originated in the 1800s and historically referred to the sections of segregated theaters where Black people were often seated.
Being mindful of language is essential in treating each other respectfully, as certain words and phrases can remind people of discrimination. While it's impossible to know every potentially insensitive term, it's essential to consider the origin of common phrases and make changes if necessary.
Take action to manage and solve them.
This can include speaking up when you witness a microaggression or asking questions to understand the situation better. It is also essential to create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their experiences of microaggressions and have a space to talk about them without fear of retribution.
This can include creating a reporting system or providing resources for employees to discuss their experiences.
Creating clear and robust policies around discrimination, harassment, and inclusion will go a long way in helping the workplace become safer. It's also crucial for leaders to model inclusive behaviors by setting examples through their words and actions.
Managing and Addressing Microaggressions in a Remote/Hybrid Work Environment
In the current remote and hybrid work environment, managers must find ways to address microaggressions and create an inclusive workplace. A few strategies that can be used to help promote workplace inclusion in a remote or hybrid setting include:
- Establishing clear policies on acceptable behavior
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Companies should establish clear guidelines for appropriate behavior in the workplace and set expectations for how employees are expected to conduct themselves. This will help ensure all employees feel safe and respected while they work, regardless of their location.
- Prioritize psychological safety by encouraging employees to feel at ease when reporting any microaggressions they have experienced. Addressing such concerns through swift HR processes will reinforce the organization's commitment to creating a safe work environment.
- Educating staff about microaggressions
Everyone must understand what constitutes a microaggression so they can recognize it when they see it and avoid perpetuating them in the future. Providing training on microaggressions and diversity can help employees become more aware of their own biases, as well as the impact they have on others.
- Organize workshops for microaggression training. These workshops aim to increase awareness about actions and words that may cause unintentional discrimination and are essential in preventing them.
- Equip staff with the necessary tools and resources to identify, confront, and prevent microaggressions. This includes sharing instances of microaggression and their harmful effects on individuals and exploring ways to counteract them.
- Encouraging open dialogue
Communication can be difficult in a remote or hybrid work setting. Managers must promote open dialogue between employees to address any microaggressions promptly and efficiently. This also fosters radical candor, which promotes trust among team members.
- Use online surveys, forums, or other digital channels to provide a safe space for employees to share their thoughts and feelings. This promotes a culture of transparency where discussions on diversity and inclusion can occur openly and transparently.
- Making sure everyone has an equal voice
Many times, microaggressions can be perpetuated when certain voices are not given the same weight or attention as others. Managers should ensure all voices are heard and everyone can express their ideas without fear of judgment or ridicule.
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- Leaders can use virtual breakout rooms or chat functions during meetings to allow everyone to contribute ideas. This will help ensure all opinions are heard and valued, thus creating an environment of equity and inclusion.
- Showing respect for diversity
Managers should strive to foster an environment where everyone is respected and valued regardless of their differences. This involves actively listening to employees' perspectives and learning about each other's backgrounds and experiences to understand one another better.
- Invest in DEI initiatives and metrics to demonstrate commitment toward reducing discrimination in the workplace. This helps create trust and shows that the company is serious about solving any issues related to microaggressions.
- Managers should also look for ways to recognize and celebrate diversity in the workplace. This can include highlighting employees' accomplishments on social media, hosting virtual cultural activities, or offering seminars on diversity topics.
- Taking complaints seriously:
Any reports of microaggressions should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly with appropriate disciplinary action if needed. This sends a strong message to all employees that such behavior will not be tolerated in the workplace.
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- Publicly address microaggressions so that all employees understand that their concerns will be heard and addressed while maintaining anonymity for both the victim and perpetrator.
- Engage in one-on-one dialogue with the person who committed the microaggression. As a leader, it's helpful to discuss the incident with them and explain how their words or actions have impacted them. Since microaggressions are often unintentional, the perpetrator may not realize they've caused any harm until it's pointed out. This conversation can also help individuals recognize and address their biases and behaviors.
- Consult a Professional
If the issue is too large to handle internally, consider hiring an outside consultant.
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Having a third party can help ensure impartiality and provide expert advice that may be needed to resolve any issues. The consultant can also offer additional training for all staff members on recognizing and addressing microaggressions in the workplace.
By creating a workplace free from microaggressions, managers can help promote an inclusive and welcoming culture in their remote or hybrid office. This will foster greater collaboration and productivity while ensuring everyone feels safe and respected.
Stop Microaggressions and Create a Healthy Workplace with Sprout
Microaggressions are subtle forms of discrimination that can hurt workplace culture. They can be implicit messages or behaviors which communicate hostility, exclusion, and disrespect to marginalized individuals or groups in the workplace.
At Sprout, we strive to create an inclusive work environment where everyone is respected and valued for their unique perspectives. We believe in creating a safe space where people feel empowered to express their thoughts and opinions without fear of judgment or ridicule.
As such, we take microaggressions seriously and strive to eliminate them from our workspace.
Sprout offers a range of tools and resources to help create a healthy work environment free from microaggressions. Here are some you can use to prevent and address microaggressions in the workplace:
Pulse - This tool can identify underlying problems with employee engagement and identify the departments with the lowest level of engagement. Conducting anonymous surveys allows for honest feedback and the ability to gather data on microaggressions in the workplace. Decisions can then be made based on data-driven insights from engagement analytics, which can identify areas that need improvement and help create solutions.
Performance + - This tool provides feedback and practical learning resources to address that feedback. It is designed to help businesses enhance their performance management procedures and help their employees better comprehend their objectives while providing a route for training and growth.
Wellness - This tool offers a complete wellness solution for employees that includes various wellness services tailored to address different physical and wellness concerns. Their wellness webinars cover a wide range of topics related to health and wellness, like nutrition, exercise, stress management, and addressing microaggressions. These webinars provide in-depth insights to improve overall well-being.
In addition, wellness offers a Leadership Training Series that includes workshops and webinars. The client can choose their preferred schedule and topics, such as microaggression. Wellness also offers consultation, which includes individual counseling, group counseling, and consultations with professionals in psychology and psychiatry.
Professional Services - This service includes drafting and revising HR policies, which will help foster a productive, effective work environment free from microaggressions.
Managing microaggressions in a remote or hybrid work environment requires understanding the dynamics of power, privilege, and open dialogue. To ensure everyone is treated respectfully, create a safe and supportive environment, provide resources and support, and have clear policies to address incidents.
The impact of microaggressions on remote/hybrid workplace settings can be significant - making it critical for employers to be aware of them, their effects, and how to manage them properly.
Employers should strive to ensure their remote/hybrid workforce feels supported, respected, valued, and heard regardless of physical distance. By following the strategies and tips above, employers will help foster a positive and productive workspace for all.
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Together, we can fight microaggressions and ensure every voice is heard in your workplace.