In the workplace, day-to-day interface among co-workers involves a wide variety of personalities and many different levels of conversation. What happens when those conversations drift toward stereotyping– and in particular, the inconspicuous kind?
Even unconsciously, and without intentional bias, comments made by one employee can offend another because of a fine-line term known as “microaggression.” Most often, these microaggressions stem from assumptions made about a person based on their race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, or age.
Six examples of microaggression in the workplace:
- “You should be good at this.” — In a team-building exercise combining a group of unacquainted employees, the team leader assigns a mathematical component of an exercise to the only team member of Asian descent, thus implying a stereotype that all Asian people are good at math.
- “You seem so smart.” — A comment to an articulate African American man, rashly implying it unusual for a man of color to be well-spoken.
- “She’s a piece of work.” — The terms used to describe a man working to climb the corporate ladder, i.e. aggressive, a go-getter, competent, are often quite different when describing a woman doing the same thing, i.e., pushy, shrill… or worse.
- “Hold-on Grandpa, let me show you how that works.” — Even though they are likely meant in fun, jokes about older employees being out of touch with technology play into a stereotype that is often untrue, and can hinder career advancement or opportunity for the older employee.
- “Don’t be shy. We want to hear what you think.” — Speaker addressing Latino or Native American individuals in a group setting, the implication of which could be construed as encouraging assimilation toward a dominant culture.
- “You’re being paranoid.” — Denial of the existence of heterosexism or transphobia, i.e. telling a gay friend or employee that he/she is wrong or silly in thinking someone is discriminating against him/her, thus implying that such bias does not exist.
Positive ways to address microaggression and unconscious bias
Many organizations are beginning to understand the magnitude and importance of dealing with microaggression in the workplace. Helping employees understand how subconscious stereotypes can rear themselves in unintended ways is key so they can begin guarding their words and actions more carefully.
Corporate cultures that are proactive in addressing microaggression and unconscious bias help team members learn to:
- Speak-up in a non-confrontational manner when on the receiving end of microaggression or unconscious bias
- Base business decisions on facts and minimize unconscious bias in the decision making process
- Listen, and avoid being defensive when someone speaks up about a comment construed as a microaggression
- Be more inclusive of others
- Create environments where people are comfortable raising their issues about unconscious bias and workplace concerns
There’s a thin line
Conversely, judgment and intent to corral unintended microaggression can lead to an overwhelming sense for employees that they can’t even think without being biased. The best approach is to address microaggressions from a broad perspective with the focus on a positive company culture, respectful behavior, and conscious and careful articulation of thoughts.