A microaggression is a statement or action that represents a subtle, often unintentional, form of discrimination based on a person's affiliation with a marginalized group. Microaggressions occur all too often, resulting in a negative impact on the workplace. Microaggressions demean the people at whom they are directed, and prevent the company's culture from being inclusive. Learning how to recognize microaggressions is the first step toward being able to address and prohibit them in the workplace. Following are some common examples of microaggressions in the workplace.
I Don't See Color
Inclusion is about valuing people for all they are, not about pretending there are no differences among you. That's why saying "I don't see color" to or about a person who is in a marginalized group is an example of a microaggression. Very well-meaning people often say this without realizing that the phrase represents a microinvalidation. Rather than expressing respect for who the other person really is, you're suggesting that their different experience is of no consequence (i.e., not valid). Color is visible; that is a fact. If you have sight, you see color. Don't ignore a person's color, and don't place any judgments on them for how they differ from you.
You Can Do Anything
How can it be discriminatory to suggest that a person can accomplish anything? If a person in a marginalized group expresses concern that their race or ethnicity could be a barrier to their success and you reply this way, your response could be perceived as a microaggression. For example, say you work in a company where the employee population is diverse, but the managers are all white. If you have a friend who is Black, Asian, or Hispanic who wants to become a manager, don't sidestep with a statement like this if they express feeling like they might not be considered equitably for a promotion. You might think you're being supportive when you tell them they can accomplish anything, but it may come across as if you don't see their concerns about a race-based glass ceiling as valid.
A person's age or generation shouldn't impact how they are treated at work. When a team member requests an in-person meeting rather than a virtual check-in via Zoom, it's not appropriate to respond with "okay, Boomer." Some topics are better addressed in person rather than in a virtual format, no matter what kind of meetings you personally prefer. Who knows? The person may want to present an award to you. It's not okay to make snide remarks to people at work based on their age or generation. When is it okay to say, "Okay, Boomer" at work? Never. This is a denigrating statement that reinforces stereotypes about Baby Boomers, while implying that older generations are less in-the-know because of their age.
Microaggressions based on age aren't always targeted toward people who are older. More seasoned members of the workforce are often guilty of targeting younger co-workers with microaggressions based on their youth or inexperience, or in relation to bias toward Gen Z or Millennial team members. When an employee suggests that the boss might need to keep meetings short to maintain the attention spans of the newer team members, that's a microaggression directed at younger workers based on negative stereotypes about their age group. The same is true when a hardworking young employee is praised for being an exception to the rule for their age, such as saying, "You're more like my generation than other people your age."
For a Woman...
If someone is a great team leader, then that person is a great team leader, period. It has nothing to do with that individual's gender. When someone in a workplace says something like, "Susan is really an outstanding production team leader. I didn't expect that from a woman, but I stand corrected," that is a type of microinsult. The person who says it might intend to pay Susan a compliment, but it's really a backhanded insult directed at women in general. Chances are, Susan won't feel complimented at all by this type of remark. Susan wants to be recognized for her ability to excel in her job, without any reference to gender stereotypes.
The workplace should be an inclusive environment where people are valued for their unique contributions. It's also a place where people are to be treated equally without regard to sex, which includes gender identity. "What's up with everybody listing pronouns with their bio pictures on the company website?" Is that an innocuous question, or is it a microaggression? It's a microaggression directed at people in the transgender community, their allies, and others who are committed to playing a role in fostering a truly inclusive work environment. Do you have to list your pronouns if you're not comfortable doing so? No. But you also don't get to make derogatory remarks or assumptions about those who do.
Against All Odds
Praise people for their accomplishments, but don't slip in an insult to their upbringing. For example, if your company hires someone who went to a school that serves a socioeconomically disadvantaged community, don't refer to their success in a way that puts down or makes assumptions about their upbringing. For example, don't say, "I'm so proud of the success you've achieved! You've come so far since XYZ school; you are proof that there are exceptions to the rule." While a person who says this may think it's a compliment, it's really an indicator of bias and stereotyping in the form of a microinsult. Even though you're expressing pride, you're putting down the person's entire early life, as well as (probably) their friends and family.
We're All in the Same Boat
When a person who is not a member of a marginalized group suggests to someone who is in one that everyone is in the same boat, that is an example of a microaggression. The individuals may be sharing a similar experience right now, but the circumstances (the so-called boat) are not at all the same. You're in the same place now, but where you came from and your respective paths forward may not be similar at all.
Dealing With Microaggressions
Whether the people who say such things intend harm is not the issue. Microaggressions are harmful in the workplace no matter how they are intended. Preventing microaggressions in the workplace starts with fostering a strong company culture characterized by diversity and inclusion, in which microaggressions and other discriminatory behaviors and language simply are not tolerated. Start hiring employees with a high level of cultural competence, and provide training on this topic to all team members. Foster dialogue to build understanding, and hold employees at all levels accountable for treating others with respect.