According to Merriam-Webster, a microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” Unlike blatant forms of discrimination, microaggressions are more subtle, and often add up over time to cause stress to minority groups.
Thus, one of the main advantages of the remote and hybrid work model was that employees felt liberated from the stress of encountering microaggressions. These included having colleagues touch their hair without permission, overhearing insensitive conversations, and receiving comments about their posture and expressions during work.
Breaking down microaggressions
While the instances of microaggressions reduce in the hybrid workplace, they don’t altogether stop. To further understand how they happen, let us look at the three dimensions of microaggressions:
- They are the most blatant form of discrimination in interpersonal interactions. They involve speaking or behaving in a discriminatory way or using symbols that have a similar effect. In the hybrid workplace, this might translate to not providing leaves from work based on an employee’s identity or clearly ignoring and disregarding opinions from a marginalized group.
- The second dimension, microinsults, involves verbal and nonverbal behaviors that demean people from a marginalized group through rudeness and insensitivity. For example, whether in the office or during virtual meetings, women often find themselves being tone policed for sounding “bossy.” Meanwhile, such assertiveness is rewarded in their male counterparts.
- A microinvalidation refers to any action or comment that could dismiss the experiences or realities of people from groups that have faced historical discrimination. For example, saying “I don’t see color” invalidates someone’s lived experience (and possible generational trauma) as a person of color.
While it might not be possible to eliminate microaggressions altogether in the work setup, leaders can take steps to reduce the instances of such occurrences in the physical and hybrid workplace. Top-down approaches would be effective since they show employees from marginalized groups that the management is here to support them.
- Conduct training workshops. Microaggression training workshops raise awareness about behaviors and language that could inadvertently lead to feelings of discrimination, and can play a vital role in preventing such occurrences.
- Focus on psychological safety. Enabling employees to feel comfortable in bringing up microaggressions they may have faced helps them feel psychologically safe. When such discussions or reports are followed by expedited HR processes to address the concerns, employees feel confident that their organization walks the talk.
- Address microaggressions publicly. This signals to every employee that their concerns will be heard and dealt with (it can also happen while keeping both perpetrator and victim anonymous).
- Have private conversations with the perpetrator. As a leader, discussing the instance of microaggression and helping the perpetrator understand the impact of their speech or behavior can help. Since microaggressions are often unintentional, the aggressors might not realize that anything has happened until confronted about it. Such conversations also allow people to identify their own biases and behaviors.
- Make DEI strategies and metrics public. Another way to show commitment to the cause of reducing discrimination is by openly discussing the diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies the company is employing.
All instances of microaggression might not warrant an HR report. But each instance does merit empathy and remediation. By implementing the above measures, an organization can invest in the employees’ well-being and create a more inclusive, positive work culture.