Discrimination can be easy to pinpoint at work, whether it’s an inappropriate comment or harassment. However, not all discriminatory events are as easy to identify - but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Microaggressions are seemingly minor put downs and insults that many employees endure at work every day, often from people who are unaware they have been offensive.
These acts are normally related to a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or disability status. Although they may seem inconsequential, they can have a serious impact on people’s wellbeing, confidence, performance and engagement with work - which can negatively affect their career progression.
“Micro affirmations and aggressions are difficult to spot, yet there are hundreds transmitted in every conversation that we have,” says Louise Lapish, an executive career coach who offers training in leadership and management, board development, effective recruitment and unconscious bias.
“Specifically microaggressions are the actions or statements we make without even thinking,” she explains. “People are still terrified of accepting that bias - both conscious and unconscious - is alive and well in the workplace. A microaggression may be something as simple as interrupting - it is still more common that women rather than men are interrupted in meetings.”
Microaggressions can come in many different forms, from ‘mansplaining’ things to female colleagues to pointing out someone’s ability to speak English. Studies show that many women of colour, especially black women, experience bias in the workplace related to the style of their hair.
In a Facebook post last year, a former Facebook employee shared his experience of microaggressions as a black man. “In my time at the company, I’ve heard far too many stories from black employees of a colleague or manager calling them ‘hostile’ or ‘aggressive’ for simply sharing their thoughts in a manner not dissimilar from their non-Black team members,” he wrote.
Last year, the Women in the Workplace report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co highlighted the gender-based microaggressions commonly faced by women at work. In the report, one Asian woman who had worked for four years at a company detailed her experience of a microaggression.
“I was in the elevator and pressed the button for the executive office. Someone said to me, ‘Um, no honey. That’s for the executive offices. The interns are going to this floor.’”
“In terms of disability there are a number of microaggressions, feeling sorry for a person who is differently abled, assuming that they need sympathy,” Lapish adds.
No matter what form they come in, microaggressions can contribute to a toxic working environment. They might seem innocuous, but over time, these incidents and comments can lead to low self-esteem, feelings of alienation and impact mental health.
“Imagine that you are in a meeting and you feel that you are constantly being ignored and overlooked, people can start to internalise these feelings, question their worth and stop attempting to contribute,” Lapish says.
“Microaggressions make people feel ‘less than’. These things can be perceived as bullying. We strive to have diversity in the workplace but suggesting someone only got their job to increase diversity is definitely a microaggression, yet still heard in the workplace.”
If you are on the receiving end of a microaggression, Lapish advises remaining calm.
“People make statements they regret and if you are at the receiving end you need to respond calmly,” she says. “I was recently at an event for chairs of charities and I was asked by a man: ‘Are you a vice chair?’
“Did he think I was too young, blonde, female to be a chair? Who knows,” she adds. “I responded with ‘What made you think that’ while still smiling and remaining calm. He looked awkward and couldn't really answer why. I accept that people have bias, conscious and unconscious. You can then explain why this might be perceived as offensive, if you think they may be receptive.”
It’s also a good idea to have someone you can confide in and vent to. “Build a support network - ask them if they are perceiving it in the same way,” Lapish says. “If nothing else it gives you a safe space to get things off your chest.”
You should also write down when and what happened, so you can refer back to it if you make a complaint to a manager or HR department. It’s also crucial for companies to take complaints over microaggressions seriously too - rather than brush them aside as overreactions.
“I delivered a training session on unconscious bias and the managers were amazed at some of their own biases and worked on how to reframe some of these biases to be more effective,” Lapish adds. “People are usually willing to change when they are shown that they need to and shown how.”