microaggressions at work

Microaggressions happen all the time. They are small slights towards different marginalized groups and they pepper in and out of every day and facet of our lives. I recently had the pleasure of speaking about ways to combat microaggressions in the workplace on ABC 7 News in Washington D.C. The thing is, so many microaggressions go unnoticed, or at least unreported. However, this doesn’t mean this form of discriminatory behavior isn’t worth correcting. 

The First Step

The first step your organization should take to stamp out microaggressions is to work to create a safe space. At the core of a safe space, there is a sense of psychological safety. Psychological safety is like a comfort zone where your mind can dwell. In safe spaces, no one fears ridicule or judgment for who they are. Going against the mainstream doesn’t cause fear. Additionally, speaking the truth, your own opinions and beliefs is encouraged and applauded, whether or not they ring true for everyone else. 

The second portion of this first step has to do with the applause. See, anyone who stands up courageously to share something about themself should be recognized and encouraged. Recognition goes so far in the workplace. If you are driving your employees to speak up, then you must show them why it matters to share their voices. Without recognition and acknowledgment, this brave action is meaningless. Show them you appreciate their individual viewpoint—their uniqueness. 

The Second Step

Now that your organization is fostering its safe space, you are ready for the next step. When a microaggression occurs, even in your safe space, you now have the opportunity for some very crucial dialogue. Both parties of the microaggressions, the aggressor and the target, need to be able to candidly and respectfully communicate what actually happened. Often the root of microaggressions is ignorance. 

Now obviously this phase sounds pretty uncomfortable, but there are real actionable steps you can take to make the whole conversation flow easier and more fruitfully. Organizations should give their employees language guides to respond to microaggressions. Relying on a script can be more comforting when the aggressor is being addressed. Provide your employees with statements they can use to make the whole situation more comfortable for them. Statements like, “How did you come to that point?” “I don’t know if you realize it, but what you just said or did hurt me, and was offensive. Instead, you could have said it this way…” These words will be very useful tools when the unfortunate slip up, or even worse,  intentional slights, occur. 

The Third Step

Now the reality is microaggressions will continue to occur as people continue to learn. So when your organization experiences a microaggression, you must have a plan in place for how to move forwards and improve. The first step should be reporting the offense itself. Sometimes the victim of a microaggression isn’t comfortable coming forward and speaking up. This is where allies come in. Anyone in your organization should assume allyship and be there to advocate for those who are less comfortable or less accepted within your workplace. 

This plan must be clearly published and communicated to every member of your organization. It must be easy to report. The plan should also be clear in how the situation will be resolved. Your employees should know what the next steps are. Have an end goal for your reporting process. 

The Fourth Step

In this unique step, your organization will actually facilitate a cultural shift and build empathy among your team members. How? Through story-telling. The more we engage in discussion about microaggressions and share our experiences, the more hearts will open as they glimpse for themselves how hurtful microaggressions can be. Stories are powerful, they evoke emotions, if we can train and build empathy then our workplace cultures will not be a fruitful environment for microaggressions. 

Storytelling is a great way to educate other people who are less familiar with microaggressions. The ignorance that forms the foundation for so much toxic behavior will be whittled away by the meaningful stories that can reform cultures. 

The Final Step

Like with so many other initiatives, the final step on the path to stop microaggressions is connecting the dots. For those that are reported, and the brave people who report them, this step is perhaps the most important. The leaders who are responsible for hearing reports and overseeing the follow-through, have to do just that, follow through. 

Each action taken from the time the microaggression is reported needs to be voiced back to the employee(s) who report it. This phase really emphasizes caring leadership at the core of the whole process. To do everything you can to improve your workplace on behalf of others, and then be there each step of the way assuring them that you have their best interests at heart is a powerful task. Microaggressions might be a mere slip of the tongue, but the wellbeing of your employees is worth an entire cultural reformation if it comes down to it. Are you ready for this challenge?