You would be forgiven for thinking of microaggressions as a relatively new concept, but the term was first coined in the 1970s by Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce, and the topic has been the subject of more than 5,000 academic studies over the past decade alone.
Despite all the research, a great deal of confusion still surrounds the concept of microaggressions, and the topic certainly merits further clarity and conversation. After all, the better we understand microaggressions and how they impact employee performance, the better positioned we are to address and eliminate them.
Below, we’ll explore what microaggressions are, why they are a performance management concern, and how managers can best confront them in the workplace.
What Are Microaggressions?
Put simply, microaggressions are everyday acts — whether verbal or nonverbal — that carry subtle hints of sexism, homophobia, racism, or another form of discrimination. These hostile comments and actions target marginalized individuals, making them feel inferior or separate, which in itself is detrimental to employee engagement and morale. Researchers have subcategorized microaggressions further into microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations, but regardless of the specific form, microaggressions target people for characteristics beyond their control. And they are highly pervasive: According to one source, for example, 64 percent of women regularly experience microaggressions, non-white women even more so.
Examples of Microaggressions in the Workplace
Microaggressions often result from general ignorance or willful stereotyping of a given demographic. Some of these biases are so deep-rooted people don’t even know they are being insensitive. Below are a few examples of the forms microaggressions may take in the workplace:
- “She is bossy/shrill/aggressive”: These terms are generally used to describe ambitious, driven women. Conversely, men who demonstrate similar behavior are often labeled as “assertive” or “determined.”
- “Are you the diversity hire?”: Assuming an employee was hired solely as a result of their demographic profile can undermine that person’s worth and value, leaving the employee feeling underappreciated.
- “You don’t seem gay”: A comment like this tells someone they don’t conform to the speaker’s stereotype of a particular group.
- “Do you need help turning the computer on?”: Comments like this might be intended as jokes, but they often speak to a perceived helplessness in another person. For example, this particular comment may be made in connection with the stereotype that older workers are out of touch with technology.
Microaggressions also come in other forms. For example:
- Only making female employees take notes during meetings
- Only asking women to make coffee runs
- Using identity terms in a derogatory manner
- Assuming strengths or preferences based on an individual’s gender, age, sexual orientation, or race
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How Microaggressions Affect Your Workforce
In isolation, microaggressions might seem trivial to you, as a casual observer. Over time, however, they can have a huge impact, including a serious effect on employee turnover. According to a 2016 study conducted by The Center for Generational Kinetics and Ultimate Software, 60 percent of employees would immediately quit a job if they felt “emotionally unsafe” at work. This finding is hardly surprising considering that managers and leaders often reinforce toxic company cultures and behaviors. Accepted attitudes and actions filter down from the top, resulting in environments of intimidation and harassment.
Toxic cultures stand in the way of building diverse, inclusive, and healthy workplaces. Language matters, and what we say to our colleagues can have a substantial effect on their sense of belonging and identity. Over time, this can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health. According to a study from the Harvard Voices of Diversity project, ongoing microaggressions can lead to lower self-confidence, constant questioning of one’s abilities, and an ever-present fear of having to reencounter the behavior.
Beyond the emotional and psychological impact, there is a physical toll as well. When an employee experiences a slight or hears an offensive statement about themselves, their body produces a stress response. Repeated microaggressions cause repeated stress responses, which over time can have the effect of prematurely aging a person’s body, contributing to illness and even early death.
How Managers Can Address Microaggressions
An environment in which microaggressions abound is not an environment that is conducive to great performance. For employee engagement and morale to flourish, employees need to feel secure, confident, and able to express themselves.
When it comes to confronting microaggressions in the workplace, here is what managers can do to help:
1. Accept That Microaggressions Are a Problem
As with any problem, before you can begin to address microaggressions, you need to first acknowledge they exist. Managers would benefit from microaggression training to help them understand what it is and how it can impact their employees. This will allow managers to identify microaggressions and intervene more effectively when they occur.
2. Encourage Open and Honest Communication Throughout Your Company
Your employees spend eight hours a day (or more) at your office. They deserve to feel confident and secure during this time. They should also believe their manager has their back and is there to support them should they need it.
Make consistent communication part of your company culture by incorporating regular performance coaching conversations into your standard operating procedures. Over time, these conversations will cultivate more trust between employees and their managers, and as a result, employees will feel more inclined to bring microaggressions to their manager’s attention.
3. Address Microaggressions Early and Directly
If an employee approaches a manager to discuss their experience and discomfort with microaggressions, the manager has a duty to address and resolve the issue immediately. The longer the manager takes to act, the less supported the employee will feel. Show your team members that you take this incivility seriously and are willing to take action.
Microaggressions can sometimes be resolved quickly and amicably. After all, the aggressor does not always realize they have caused offense. Some situations, however, may require more complex resolution processes. Regardless, it is best to discuss the problem openly and get to the bottom of the matter before it begins to fester.
Most importantly, managers should take a public stance against microaggressions and make it clear that the company does not accept discrimination in any form. When employees are confident and secure in their place of work, they will not only be more psychologically well, but they’ll also be more motivated to go that extra mile for your business.
Stuart Hearn is CEO and founder of Clear Review.
Stuart Hearn has 20 years of experience in the HR sector. He cofounded plusHR, a leading UK HR consultancy, and previously worked as international HR director for Sony Music Publishing. Stuart is currently CEO of Clear Review, an innovative performance management software system.