Microaggressions at work: four ways HR can help


Don’t turn a blind eye to subtle and indirect microaggressions in the workplace – they can very quickly snowball into a much bigger problem.

Microaggression is everywhere, and you cannot run away from it. Be it at the workplace or in your regular day-to-day life. 

We prefer to disregard incidents involving microaggression, assuming it will subside over time or that it’s ‘not a big deal’, without realising its consequences. 

Addressing microaggression and building a culture that encourages equality in the workplace is vital for creating a harmonious, inclusive, productive and successful organisation.

If you’re not sure if your workplace has a problem with microaggression, HRM has outlined some of the things you should be looking out for. For example, do you understand the psychological impact of microaggression in the workplace? And what’s HR’s role in fixing it? Let’s dive in to find out.

What is microaggression?

Microaggressions are more than just insults. They are subtle and indirect negative statements, or derogatory or prejudicial slights that are targeted towards a specific person or group – often those belonging to a minority group.

Microaggressions can exist due to a lack of awareness or in-depth knowledge about the problem and its consequences. However, our social conditioning has played a significant role in the widespread presence of microaggression at work; it has influenced our thought process and our ability to relate to a particular group of people compassionately. 

People are now more conscious about microaggressions at work and how it can affect mental health in the workplace, but we still have a long way to go. 

Microaggressions are more prominent in the workplace than many people would like to believe. While your employees might not be aware of it, they may exhibit some form of microaggression that can harm a colleague. 

Importantly, it’s worth noting that these behaviours differ from aggressive behaviours –  overt body shaming, bullying or racist comments, for example. Microaggressions are subtle, inadvertent acts – think, insensitive questions or offensive comments

Asking a new employee about their food preferences based on their geographical and cultural background, or suggesting an obese colleague hit the gym, even if they didn’t express an interest in doing this, are both examples of microaggressions at work.


Learn how to make diversity and inclusion thrive in your workplace by attending AHRI’s D&I conference. Register today.


Impact of microaggressions at work

Many instances of microaggressions at work are unintentional, but that doesn’t lessen their impact. Without proper attention, they could be causing real harm to your organisation, including:

  1. Lack of Motivation

When an employee is subjected to social stigma, they might feel out of place in the workplace. When they are surrounded by negative behavior, it can make the environment toxic, which could result in a lack of motivation.

In the work environment, microaggression can negatively impact concentration, productivity, motivation and job satisfaction.

  1. Difficult to Trust

It could be difficult to collaborate with a person who has offended you in the past and there is a lack of mutual trust. 

Employees who’ve experienced microaggressions might hold some level of resentment, which could deter them from sharing their ideas or trusting the colleague they’re working with. Even if you feel like keeping differences aside, the conflict might pop-up between the project and disrupt a team’s harmony and ability to work together in a productive manner. 

  1. Sense of Confidence

Confidence comes from a lot of factors. Some people are inherently more positive and confident, while others need social acceptance to build their confidence. Whatever the case, an employee’s outlook might shift in an environment that is not inclusive and makes them feel uncomfortable. 

If someone in your team makes an offensive remark or undermines their colleague’s abilities, it could hamper an employee’s confidence. Not only that, 28 per cent of employees have experienced being spoken-over, which can impact confidence levels and team cohesion – especially for women.

  1. Absenteeism and Turnover

Victims of microaggressions at work are unlikely to extend an olive branch. Building healthy work relationships is vital for job satisfaction, and when this fundamental element is absent, microaggression can affect morale and employees may isolate themselves from others, or choose to leave the organisation.

A 2016 Ultimate Software study found that more than half of employees would immediately leave their job if they felt emotionally unsafe, demonstrating how unhandled remarks and biased attitudes could affect employee turnover.

  1. Harms Employee Wellbeing

The fear of confrontation in addressing microaggression at work could also increase employees’ stress levels. Assistant Professor Vesa Matti Peltokorpi’s research, published in AHRI’s Asia Pacific Journal of HR, found that long-term avoidance of emotional exhaustion worsens the situation for the employee. It can deteriorate both the physical and psychological wellbeing of an individual resulting in high turnover rates and stress-related illness. 

Furthermore, when employees are subjected to stress and emotional turmoil it impedes their growth and results in a reduction in productivity in the long term. 

Four ways HR can help

Figuring out the problems that give rise to microaggression is a crucial function of HR. However, the greater responsibility is to make your workforce aware of the implications and negative consequences for a work environment that has frequent instances of microaggression.

  1. HR Managers educating the employees

Employers need to start conversations with employees on racism, social norms, gender prejudices and other micro-aggressive behaviors. Often, people are not wilfully racist or intolerant. Microaggressions come from a place of ignorance. Educating everyone about the adverse impact and the mental stress that microaggression causes  is critical. 

It might be uncomfortable and overwhelming, but it is an essential part of the awareness you want to promote in the organisation. 

Another crucial aspect to keep in mind before tackling microaggression is that employees need to be empowered to speak up to any actions or incidents leading to microaggression. 

They should be encouraged to learn about the adverse effects microaggression can have on someone and how it can hamper their morale. In-depth knowledge of the subject will help them broaden their minds and tackle the problem from the roots.

  1. Be prepared to answer questions 

Before creating an awareness program, it’s crucial to investigate how microaggressions at work can harm culture. There will be queries and questions related to every form of microaggression. 

To lead those questions with the right response, you need a deep understanding and awareness of how the consequences can influence people. An investigative study will help you tackle the issues in the right way and benefit everyone. 

  1. Internal complaint board

In order to tackle microaggressions on a larger scale, you could form an internal complaint board focused on issues including microaggression. The board might comprise an executive, reporting managers, team leaders and employee representatives.

Members of the complaint board could establish specific guidelines for all employees in the organisation. 

  1. Building an inclusive culture

Having diversity in the workplace is one thing, but practicing inclusivity is another. Many organisations fail to build an inclusive culture in which people from different backgrounds are respected for their views and the goodwill they bring to the workplace. 

The main reason behind this is a lack of awareness and understanding of the importance of diversity. Many fill the quota to get on board the trend, and this is where the problem starts which eventually leads to unwanted workplace behavior. Taking diversity seriously and filling the potholes must be encouraged to tackle microaggressions and create an inclusive and respectful culture.

Don’t run away from microaggression when you can tackle the problem and foster a work culture that promotes diversity, gender equality and diminish social stereotypes. It should be a collaborative effort to erase the negative mindset and promote a healthy work environment for the diverse workforce in the long term. 

Anjan Pathak is a co-founder and CTO at Vantage Circle – an employee engagement software and Vantage Fit Corporate wellness solution.

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Linda
Linda
5 months ago

Great article and very timely at the moment. Many of the examples given demonstrating micro-regressions would fall into the bullying and harassment space so disciplinary action could be added to the list of interventions.

More on HRM

Microaggressions at work: four ways HR can help


Don’t turn a blind eye to subtle and indirect microaggressions in the workplace – they can very quickly snowball into a much bigger problem.

Microaggression is everywhere, and you cannot run away from it. Be it at the workplace or in your regular day-to-day life. 

We prefer to disregard incidents involving microaggression, assuming it will subside over time or that it’s ‘not a big deal’, without realising its consequences. 

Addressing microaggression and building a culture that encourages equality in the workplace is vital for creating a harmonious, inclusive, productive and successful organisation.

If you’re not sure if your workplace has a problem with microaggression, HRM has outlined some of the things you should be looking out for. For example, do you understand the psychological impact of microaggression in the workplace? And what’s HR’s role in fixing it? Let’s dive in to find out.

What is microaggression?

Microaggressions are more than just insults. They are subtle and indirect negative statements, or derogatory or prejudicial slights that are targeted towards a specific person or group – often those belonging to a minority group.

Microaggressions can exist due to a lack of awareness or in-depth knowledge about the problem and its consequences. However, our social conditioning has played a significant role in the widespread presence of microaggression at work; it has influenced our thought process and our ability to relate to a particular group of people compassionately. 

People are now more conscious about microaggressions at work and how it can affect mental health in the workplace, but we still have a long way to go. 

Microaggressions are more prominent in the workplace than many people would like to believe. While your employees might not be aware of it, they may exhibit some form of microaggression that can harm a colleague. 

Importantly, it’s worth noting that these behaviours differ from aggressive behaviours –  overt body shaming, bullying or racist comments, for example. Microaggressions are subtle, inadvertent acts – think, insensitive questions or offensive comments

Asking a new employee about their food preferences based on their geographical and cultural background, or suggesting an obese colleague hit the gym, even if they didn’t express an interest in doing this, are both examples of microaggressions at work.


Learn how to make diversity and inclusion thrive in your workplace by attending AHRI’s D&I conference. Register today.


Impact of microaggressions at work

Many instances of microaggressions at work are unintentional, but that doesn’t lessen their impact. Without proper attention, they could be causing real harm to your organisation, including:

  1. Lack of Motivation

When an employee is subjected to social stigma, they might feel out of place in the workplace. When they are surrounded by negative behavior, it can make the environment toxic, which could result in a lack of motivation.

In the work environment, microaggression can negatively impact concentration, productivity, motivation and job satisfaction.

  1. Difficult to Trust

It could be difficult to collaborate with a person who has offended you in the past and there is a lack of mutual trust. 

Employees who’ve experienced microaggressions might hold some level of resentment, which could deter them from sharing their ideas or trusting the colleague they’re working with. Even if you feel like keeping differences aside, the conflict might pop-up between the project and disrupt a team’s harmony and ability to work together in a productive manner. 

  1. Sense of Confidence

Confidence comes from a lot of factors. Some people are inherently more positive and confident, while others need social acceptance to build their confidence. Whatever the case, an employee’s outlook might shift in an environment that is not inclusive and makes them feel uncomfortable. 

If someone in your team makes an offensive remark or undermines their colleague’s abilities, it could hamper an employee’s confidence. Not only that, 28 per cent of employees have experienced being spoken-over, which can impact confidence levels and team cohesion – especially for women.

  1. Absenteeism and Turnover

Victims of microaggressions at work are unlikely to extend an olive branch. Building healthy work relationships is vital for job satisfaction, and when this fundamental element is absent, microaggression can affect morale and employees may isolate themselves from others, or choose to leave the organisation.

A 2016 Ultimate Software study found that more than half of employees would immediately leave their job if they felt emotionally unsafe, demonstrating how unhandled remarks and biased attitudes could affect employee turnover.

  1. Harms Employee Wellbeing

The fear of confrontation in addressing microaggression at work could also increase employees’ stress levels. Assistant Professor Vesa Matti Peltokorpi’s research, published in AHRI’s Asia Pacific Journal of HR, found that long-term avoidance of emotional exhaustion worsens the situation for the employee. It can deteriorate both the physical and psychological wellbeing of an individual resulting in high turnover rates and stress-related illness. 

Furthermore, when employees are subjected to stress and emotional turmoil it impedes their growth and results in a reduction in productivity in the long term. 

Four ways HR can help

Figuring out the problems that give rise to microaggression is a crucial function of HR. However, the greater responsibility is to make your workforce aware of the implications and negative consequences for a work environment that has frequent instances of microaggression.

  1. HR Managers educating the employees

Employers need to start conversations with employees on racism, social norms, gender prejudices and other micro-aggressive behaviors. Often, people are not wilfully racist or intolerant. Microaggressions come from a place of ignorance. Educating everyone about the adverse impact and the mental stress that microaggression causes  is critical. 

It might be uncomfortable and overwhelming, but it is an essential part of the awareness you want to promote in the organisation. 

Another crucial aspect to keep in mind before tackling microaggression is that employees need to be empowered to speak up to any actions or incidents leading to microaggression. 

They should be encouraged to learn about the adverse effects microaggression can have on someone and how it can hamper their morale. In-depth knowledge of the subject will help them broaden their minds and tackle the problem from the roots.

  1. Be prepared to answer questions 

Before creating an awareness program, it’s crucial to investigate how microaggressions at work can harm culture. There will be queries and questions related to every form of microaggression. 

To lead those questions with the right response, you need a deep understanding and awareness of how the consequences can influence people. An investigative study will help you tackle the issues in the right way and benefit everyone. 

  1. Internal complaint board

In order to tackle microaggressions on a larger scale, you could form an internal complaint board focused on issues including microaggression. The board might comprise an executive, reporting managers, team leaders and employee representatives.

Members of the complaint board could establish specific guidelines for all employees in the organisation. 

  1. Building an inclusive culture

Having diversity in the workplace is one thing, but practicing inclusivity is another. Many organisations fail to build an inclusive culture in which people from different backgrounds are respected for their views and the goodwill they bring to the workplace. 

The main reason behind this is a lack of awareness and understanding of the importance of diversity. Many fill the quota to get on board the trend, and this is where the problem starts which eventually leads to unwanted workplace behavior. Taking diversity seriously and filling the potholes must be encouraged to tackle microaggressions and create an inclusive and respectful culture.

Don’t run away from microaggression when you can tackle the problem and foster a work culture that promotes diversity, gender equality and diminish social stereotypes. It should be a collaborative effort to erase the negative mindset and promote a healthy work environment for the diverse workforce in the long term. 

Anjan Pathak is a co-founder and CTO at Vantage Circle – an employee engagement software and Vantage Fit Corporate wellness solution.

guest
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Linda
Linda
5 months ago

Great article and very timely at the moment. Many of the examples given demonstrating micro-regressions would fall into the bullying and harassment space so disciplinary action could be added to the list of interventions.

More on HRM