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Microaggressions in the workplace and how to be a better ally

What exactly are microaggressions? And why are they important to know about and address in the workplace?

Remote teams

Last updated

31 Jul 2022
Learn about microaggressions and why we need to address them to create better workplaces.

You've probably heard the term 'microaggressions.' The word is linked to showing empathy and nurturing psychological safety in the workplace. But how many of us can explain what they are?

Despite containing the word ‘micro,’ there’s nothing small about their impact. In fact, they can have tremendous physical, mental, and material consequences. Addressing them creates better workplaces, organizations, and societies.

At Hotjar, we’re committed to doing exactly that, so we sat down with behavioral change enthusiast Kevin Groen. Like us, Kevin is on a mission to make workplaces more humane. He provided insight into microaggressions and gave us tips on how we can be better allies.

So what are microaggressions anyway?

Harvard University psychiatrist Dr. Chester M. Pierce coined the term ‘microaggressions’ in 1970 to describe the everyday racism inflicted on African Americans. The term was then expanded to include the casual insults and dismissals of other marginalized groups like women and LGBTQIA+ people.

"A microaggression is any interaction with people or your environment in which you receive negative messaging about your identity," explained Kevin.

It’s important to remember that ‘micro’ is only a description of the context and environment in which these aggressions take place. They typically happen on an everyday scale, in interactions between people.

A common misconception is that 'micro' is associated with the impact. But microaggressions can have significant impacts on someone’s wellbeing.

Kevin Groen

They might happen on a small scale, but microaggressions are a big deal. Research shows that microaggressions can have a negative impact on sleep, physical health, life expectancy, and mental health

What’s the difference between microaggressions and unconscious bias?

We all have unconscious biases, because we're all socialized. Microaggressions are the externalization of those biases.

What are the different types of microaggressions? 

Psychologist Dr. Derald Wing Sue popularized the categorisation of microaggressions. He split them into three main categories; microsassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. 

Microassaults

These are conscious assaults on someone's identity.

“If I say, women are simply inferior to men, that’s an example of a microassault,” said Kevin.

Comments or behaviors like this are obviously misogynistic, racist, ableist, homophobic, and so on. 

Microinsults

These are more indirect and often unintentional. “If I say that the reason we have more men at an executive level is because the job goes to the best person, that’s a microinsult,” said Kevin.

While the statement does not directly say that women are inferior, it implies it. It also denies the role of unconscious bias, current and historical oppression, and the fact that ‘the best’ has often been defined by people with the most privileges.

Remember: microaggressions can be verbal, behavioral, or environmental.

Kevin Groen

Microinvalidations

Microinvalidations are statements or interactions that invalidate the experience of a marginalized person. For example, if a white person says, ‘I don’t see color,’ it invalidates the experience of a person of color. “It’s important not to get too caught up in the themes and classifications of microaggressions,” said Kevin. While they do help us understand what exactly microaggressions are, the most important part of the conversation is how we actively address them.

Three real-world examples of microaggressions

1. Only including binary genders: often the only genders or pronouns used on forms or in job descriptions are he/she or male/female. This completely denies the identity of other groups.

2. Interrupting women: numerous studies have shown that women are interrupted more than men in the workplace. They are also regularly demeaned by being mistaken for an assistant rather than a team leader or director.

People who are at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities are more prone to microaggressions. So if you’re a fat queer woman of color with a disability, you will likely experience multiple microaggressions in a day.

Kevin Groen

3. Non-inclusive architecture: small bathrooms are often difficult for people who use crutches or wheelchairs to navigate. Similarly, non-automatic doors are very ableist.

Does working remotely help to lessen microaggressions?

“Yes and no,” said Kevin. Some investigations have shown that many people with marginalized identities don't want to go back to the office, in part because they are exposed to fewer microaggressions at home.

“On the other hand, working from home has also created a bubble where we stop learning about other people,” he elaborated.

For a white cis heterosexual able-bodied neurotypical man, working from home may make result in him becoming less sensitive and attentive to people with different identities.

It's important to build trust in remote teams and consciously connect to each other. Another thing to consider is that certain work-from-home policies can be seen as microaggressions in themselves for some groups, like parents or single people living alone.

Am I microaggressive and don’t even know it? Things to consider.

Given that everyone has biases, we’ve probably all committed microaggressions. And chances are, we’ll continue to make mistakes. The important question to ask is: what am I actively doing to develop the empathy and awareness I need to minimize mistakes (and respond with grace when someone corrects me)? 

"Oftentimes, we fall victim to the illusion of explanatory depth," said Kevin, referring to a common phenomenon in which people think they understand a subject way better than they actually do.

I have not met a person yet that has never been guilty of microaggressions. I also still sometimes make mistakes regarding microaggressions, so learning about it and improving our behaviors applies to all of us.

Kevin Groen

This illusion often hampers our ability to be open and increase our awareness about other identities. The solution? According to Kevin, it’s ongoing education. You can do this through conversation, reading, workshops, audiobooks, podcasts, or videos.

Unless you consciously take time to reflect on your language, biases, and behaviors, you might not notice that you’re committing microaggressions. Checking your perceived ideas about your expertise, and your ego, will help you minimize mistakes and receive feedback with grace when you do make one!

How do we deal with microaggression in the workplace?

The first thing to do if you’re a victim of a microaggression in the workplace is to practice self-care. “Ask yourself: what do I need at this moment to take care of myself?” advises Kevin.

This can mean removing yourself from the situation. It can mean expressing your anger by telling the person who committed the microaggression how you feel. Or, it can mean giving feedback and having a conversation with that person if that’s what you want to do. You may prefer or talk to a friend or another trusted person within the company.

For organizations, there should be a simple process in place to deal with this. For example, having a confidential telephone line or a trusted person that people can reach out to if they experience a microaggression. The trusted person should be trained to have these conversations and suggest fitting next steps. Also, organizations should continuously communicate such processes and policies.

Psychological safety has become a bit of a buzzword in the corporate world, but it’s hardly ever taught in the context of privilege. That’s a mistake.

Kevin Groen

Within organizations, the most important allies are c-level directors, executives. and HR decision makers, since they have the most power. These people have a moral obligation to educate, train, and empower managers to create psychologically safe work environments for everyone–and that includes having to learn more about privilege.

Five ways to be a better ally

1. Intervene if needed

If you witness a microaggression, and the victim seems uncomfortable and shuts down or isn't present when it happens, it’s your job to call it out to the person committing the microaggression and the group. However, if the victim addresses it themselves, there’s no need to step in. This takes away their agency. If they receive a great deal of pushback and defensiveness, you can intervene while considering their agency.

2. Forgo these phrases

Phrases such as ‘I don’t see color,’ ‘that person/thing is crazy,’ and addressing groups as ‘guys' are common microaggressive phrases that everyone can stop saying now. 

3. Connect to your own experience

Everyone has been subject to some form of discrimination in their lives. Ask yourself: when I was subject to discrimination, what did I need from the person doing it? What did I need from my environment? And what did I need going forward from my organization or team? Go back to that place and make a list. Then next time you witness a microaggression or receive feedback about something you did, think about what you can do to help.

4. Education

Take time to start understanding issues in depth. By learning about topics such as race, gender equality, and ableism, you will start to notice how they impact our everyday lives. It’s hard to be an ally without this knowledge.

5. Understand that being an ally is an ongoing process

Being an ally is not a place that you arrive at. It’s an ongoing practice. The moment you don’t intervene, you stop being an ally. So continue being proactive and aware!

Conclusion

Kevin’s workshops with Hotjar teams have helped us create a more inclusive and mindful workplace. We hope that you’re inspired to have more positive interactions and create better work environments by addressing microaggressions too.

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