Recognise your bias to stop microaggression in the workplace

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from London.”

“No, where are you REALLY from?”

Have you ever had an interaction like this? It’s not that uncommon! Most of us from minority communities or at least are not white, probably have had encounters like this that although are not intentionally meant to be annoying, certainly can be. And businesses rarely address this issue. Some years ago, I was once told by a team member from a previous employer that because I was the only person in my team from an ethnic minority, I should ‘represent where I am from’. I think they meant because it would maintain a good impression. That I’m not completely sure of and I could have interpreted this person wrong. However, at the time, I thought this person was right but actually, it did not make any sense to put that kind of responsibility on anyone. Had I known what I knew now, I would have politely called it out and questioned it further due to me feeling as through I was put in an unfair situation.

Given that most people spend many hours of their lives at work, microaggressions in the workplace can have a profound impact on people’s mental, spiritual, and even physical health.

What are microaggressions and where do they come from?

People are often unaware of how their words or actions impact the recipient, who is most likely someone that has lived a very different life whether than be culturally or religiously etc. Because of this, microaggressions come from our deeply rooted biases against those that are different from us or at least seem different to us on a surface level. As humans, we have a need to feel like we understand what is going on around us, and we feel threatened if we do not feel this way because it brings feelings of uncertainty which does not feel safe to us. Therefore we tend to jump to conclusions or only see things through our experiences to gain a sense of familiarity, rather than to purposefully be ignorant.

Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology, defines microaggressions as: “The everyday, subtle, intentional – and oftentimes unintentional – interactions or behaviours that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalised groups.” The question posed in the image above is a common example of this, but it can be hard to spot in the moment. Since microaggressions are so subtle, it’s often hard to know if you’re committing one or if you’re on the receiving end.

Types of microaggressions

Psychologist Derald Wing Sue and colleagues defined three types:

  1. Microassaults: A microassault is when a person intentionally behaves in a discriminatory way while not intending to be offensive. An example of a microassault is a person telling an untasteful joke and following it up with, “I was just joking.”
  2. Microinsults: A microinsult is a comment or action that is unintentionally discriminatory. For example, this could be someone asking, “why haven’t you had children yet?”
  3. Microinvalidations: A microinvalidation is an unconscious act when a person’s comment invalidates or undermines the experiences of a certain group of people. An example could be a comment such as “if I can do it with no hurdles, you can too.” Even if said person faced no hurdles, the recipient could experience various hurdles if they were to carry out the same task due to their gender, culture or religion etc, that the person commenting is not aware of or hasn’t recognised due to their own bias or ignorance.

The above can also happen across many different scenarios across sexuality, religion, community, culture or even from our names. I find this particular point interesting to highlight as it is something that is not openly recognised as a microaggression. Getting someone’s name right is important, they should not have to shorten it, or simplify it just for their co-workers to have a better chance of pronouncing it. Not taking the effort to learn how someone’s name is pronounced subconsciously suggests that they do not deserve the same effort and attention to those with easier names. Questions such as ‘where are you really from’, presupposes that being a person of colour is inconsistent with being British. It differs from person to person how they would like to talk about their ethnicity, some do not want to at all. The safest option is just to pronounce their names correctly and not ask their background if they have not spoken about it openly with you.

So how do microaggressions affect employee mental health?

Experiencing microaggressions can steadily wear away at everything from performance, sense of belonging, current and future development, to retention, and more. The result of this can be a toxic work culture which corrodes employee engagement. The above image shows a post from Cynthia Perry, a former design research senior manager at Salesforce who posted her resignation letter on LinkedIn that detailed her negative treatment at the company. Perry alleges she experienced “countless microaggressions and inequity” during her time at the company. “Salesforce, for me, is not a safe place to come to work,” she wrote. “It’s not a place where I can be my full self. It’s not a place where I have been invested in. It’s not a place full of opportunity. It’s not a place of Equality for All. It’s not a place where well-being matters.” Ultimately, the damaging effects microaggressions can cause people to feel not important, undervalued, and unsafe in their workplace.

Reducing microaggression in your workplace

Microaggressions are causes and symptoms of larger systemic and structural problems. Businesses have an opportunity to encourage the calling out of microaggressions which can serve as a deterrent. But to do this, it’s important to try the following to increase awareness of microaggressions:

  1. Educate yourself on the forms of microaggressions using online resources and the various ways these can be verbalised or non-verbalised.
  1. Stand up for co-workers from marginalised communities to make them feel heard and important enough to be recognised.
  1. Advocate for organisational change in your company by raising awareness of microaggressions through training sessions. These can ultimately help to foster a more inclusive workplace.

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