Workplace microaggressions: did you really just say that?
By Annie Makoff on 19 April 2021
Back in February, global software company Salesforce found itself rocked by allegations of discrimination, inequality and racism following the resignation of two Black employees who experienced ‘rampant microaggressions and gaslighting’.
Former Salesforce senior manager Cynthia Perry and former designer Vivianne Castillo resigned within weeks of each other and both went public with their experiences on LinkedIn.
Salesforce may be latest company to be at the forefront of a microaggression scandal but it’s also one of thousands. Statistics of workplace microaggression and discrimination speak for themselves.
- The Financial Times (2020) reported on the surge in disability discrimination cases at employment tribunals, while an earlier study (2014) by law firm Leigh Day revealed that disability discrimination in the workplace is still common
- 64 per cent of women and 71 per cent of Lesbian women have experienced workplace microaggressions (Lean In’s Women in the Workplace Report 2018)
- One third of employees have experienced or witnessed workplace racism (Glassdoor research, 2019)
- 65 per cent of trans people hide their gender status at work (Totaljobs research, 2021)
- 59 per cent of construction employees have overhead ‘gay’ being used as an insult while 28 per cent of LGBTQ+ employees said they’ve experienced an offensive or inappropriate comment made about their gender or sexuality during the past year (Construction News research 2018).
By its very nature, microaggressions, unlike covert discrimination, tends to be subtle, underhand comments or behaviours, directed at minority groups or individuals with protected characteristics. As such, it often goes unreported.
“What is interesting is that often perpetrators don’t realise they have negatively impacted the individual and don’t necessarily intend to cause hurt,” says Dr Jummy Okoya, EDI expert and associate programme leader for MSc human resource management at the University of East London. “But it’s the impact we look at, not the intent.”
According to Okoya, there are three main types of microaggressions:
Micro Assault: The perpetrator behaves in an intentionally discriminatory or offensive way towards an individual or marginalised group.
Example: Using the term ‘gay’ as an insult or telling a racist joke.
Micro Insult: This is usually a subtle act of discriminatory behaviour or comment, often a ‘backhanded’ compliment which makes someone uncomfortable.
Example: Commenting on how ‘well spoken’ someone is in relation to their race or telling someone with a disability they’re ‘inspiring’ or ‘brave’.
Micro Invalidation: This form of microaggression demeans, belittles or invalidates the experience or ideas of an individual or marginalised group.
Example: Insisting an organisation has great career progression, despite the experience of Black colleagues who have struggled or regularly ignoring a woman’s ideas in work meetings.
“It’s often hard to pick up on microaggressions because sometimes, they almost sound like a positive when they’re not,” says Philippa Willitts, freelance editor and disabled activist. “I’ve heard someone describe a Black colleague as ‘surprisingly intelligent’ and someone else refer to a colleague with Bipolar as ‘actually very reliable.’” Willitts herself has experienced countless workplace microaggressions. “When I became more visibly disabled, a colleague I vaguely knew said to me once, ‘I’d kill myself if I became disabled.”
In Willitts view, we’re better these days at recognising that throwaway comments like these are damaging, but there’s still a long way to go. “It used to be that if you hadn’t been punched in the face, you were making a fuss. But there’s still work to do. We still have to get beyond that something has to have been terrible in order for us to call it out.”
From a legal perspective, Paula Cole, partner at law firm TLT believes that employment tribunals are likely to take a ‘harder stance’ against microaggressions these days as the prevalence and impact of the issues grows.
“Whereas previously claimants might have been considered ‘oversensitive’ tribunals are already well versed in considering unconscious motives for discriminatory behaviour,” she explains. “Few people would ever openly admit to racist or discriminatory behaviour at work.”
Calling out microaggressions
Ultimately, microaggression needs to be called out, as they happen, says Okoya. She suggests asking questions like ‘did you actually say this?’ ‘can you explain what you meant by that?’ ‘why did you say that?’ But this isn’t always easy to do, especially if challenging or being assertive isn’t someone’s default behaviour.
“Speaking out takes courage and it can be difficult to do. This is why, when someone comes forward to management about a microaggression, in the first instance, believe them.”
In Okoya’s view, employers need to create an environment of ‘psychological safety’, but how should employers go about creating this?
- Implement internal processes: Ensure there are robust systems in place which allows employees to report microaggressions anonymously, either by an intranet form or using an anonymous email address set up for the purpose.
- Respond promptly: Accusations should be addressed, ideally at the time. While it can sometimes be useful to wait until emotions have calmed, waiting too long can risk the incident being forgotten. “Not dealing with accusations sends a very wrong signal,” Okoya warns. “Senior management ignoring microaggression will role model negative behaviour models which will create a toxic environment.”
- Invite quiet, unheard voices: Give quiet voices the chance to speak out, Okoya advises. “If leaders notice people are withdrawn or not engaging in a project, check in with them to ask them why. Give everyone a chance to share ideas. Involve everyone.”
- Mix up teams: Managers and leaders should take every opportunity to ensure teams they create are mixed up and diverse. “We all have a tendency to stick with our own,” says Okoya. “That’s what we want to break.”
- Education: Finally, Okoya advises creating opportunities to ‘champion conversations’ and create safe spaces for learning behaviour. As she explains: “Everyone should be interested in educating themselves and understanding and learning what is acceptable language and behaviour and what isn’t.”
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