As a term, “microaggression” can feel a bit ambiguous, even though it's a hot topic in our day and age. Merriam-Webster defines microaggression as a "comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)."
These harmful behaviors can emerge in a wide range of situations... including in the workplace. If you’re concerned that your office might be negligent about addressing and condemning microaggressions, these seven signs signal that your worries aren’t misplaced.
1. The decisions of women in your workplace are questioned at a far higher rate than those of men.
Gender-based microaggressions unfortunately persist in many industries and work environments, and even when women earn promotions into leadership positions, they frequently find themselves confronted by insidious attempts to undermine their authority. Forbes reports that 36% of women have dealt with colleagues questioning their judgement, as opposed to only 27% of men.
2. Not only are people of color in the minority, but their names are constantly confused.
Companies who fail to actively recruit and hire minority employees are guilty of “macroaggression” as well as the micro- version, but even those that do strive for a diverse population of workers can become a breeding ground for insensitivity and discrimination. A prime example occurs when employees of similar racial backgrounds are regularly confused for each other and called by the incorrect names. The coworkers committing these infractions may not consciously intend to undermine their colleagues, but their inability (or unwillingness) to learn the right names speaks to a troubling trend of depersonalization.
3. Underhanded “compliments” occur on a regular basis.
A genuine compliment from one coworker to another typically gets a positive reception...but when said compliment comes with racial or gender-based subtexts, it’s less than welcome. An example provided by Business Insider involves gratuitous and over-the-top conversations about the hairstyles worn by black women; “Your hair looks nice today” is appropriate verbiage for a workplace compliment, but “Is that your real hair?” or “Your hair’s so amazing! Can I touch it?” feel explicitly tied to racial stereotypes and should therefore be adamantly avoided.
4. It’s assumed that employees over a certain age won’t want anything to do with social media outreach or web-content generation.
Ageism in the workplace isn’t just the provenance of TV shows like “Younger”- it’s also a grievous reality affecting many industries. Evidence can manifest in obvious ways- like a company’s refusal to hire anyone over the age of 40 (which is, of course, illegal)- or in more nuanced ways, like restricting job responsibilities involving web content or social media activity to younger employees. Basing these assignments solely on age rather than on interest and experience happens more frequently than it should, and if it's happening in your workplace, it’s a clear sign that microaggressions are part of your company culture.
5. Certain tasks and areas of work are blatantly (or even subtly) linked with specific genders.
While your coworkers may think they’re paying their female colleagues a compliment by praising their office party-planning skills or constantly asking for their help when cleaning up after a meeting or when making photocopies, they’re actually feeding into a presumption fueled by sexist views on a woman’s place in the working world. By the same token, constantly turning to your male coworkers for help with tech issues (although these employees have no particular training or experience in tech) also contributes to this problem.
6. LGBTQ colleagues are forced to endure clumsy “matchmaking” efforts from their coworkers.
Playing “Cupid” between two friends or acquaintances isn’t a problematic move in and of itself. However, LGBTQ folks often endure poorly-conceived matchmaking attempts by their friends with little consideration of their personal preferences or tastes; the old “I know two single gay people, so they must be a match!” assumption is, regrettably, alive and well. While it’s an absurd oversimplification in any context, these behaviors are particularly inappropriate in a work setting.
7. Coworkers interrupting each other happens constantly and is rarely reprimanded.
Office cultures that permit microaggressions often foster other forms of disrespectful interactions between employees, and a clear symptom of these environments involves an acceptance of regular interruptions. If your colleagues regularly talk over each other in meetings, making it impossible to express a cohesive point, that’s a sign of communication dysfunction that can easily feed microaggressions.
How to fight microaggressions at work
The Harvard Business Review suggests a four-part approach for deciding how to respond to microaggressions you encounter at work:
If you are facing the microaggression, take time to decide how you feel about the situation, how the relationship impacts you, and whether or not you have the energy to speak up. If a relationship is important to you, being your authentic self and establishing how you'd like to be treated helps to preserve that relationship. However, a relationship or a microaggression may not be important enough to you to spend your energy on expressing yourself. Put yourself first. If you are a bystander watching someone else fight microaggressions, put yourself in their shoes: If someone said something like that to you, would you want someone to call them out? The answer is probably yes — and you should be using your energy to defend others.
If you've decided to confront someone's actions, try to disarm them instead of saying something that makes them clam up. Say that while this is an awkward conversation to have, they made you feel awkward, or they said something that is awkward to everyone in the room. Then, let them sit in that feeling as you take the next step.
Ask them to clarify what they meant by their microaggression to give them a moment to unpack what they said or did — and hopefully realize, internally, that it was wrong. Tell them that you appreciate them being honest with you, and that you are also being honest with them about their impact.
If you are faced with a microaggression, you get to decide how this incident will impact your relationship with this person and with yourself. No one else can decide that for you.