February 15, 2022
While many of us can easily identify overt forms of discrimination in the workplace, microaggressions are often far more subtle and go unnoticed and unreported. As referenced in a Harvard Business Review article, studies indicate these actions, which are a type of bias, are “at least as harmful” as more overt forms of racism. To address these behaviors in the workplace culture, we need to understand them in greater depth.
Microaggressions may fly under the radar for those of us who don’t directly experience them, but they are a clear form of exclusion and discrimination—and they are more widespread than you may think. According to a study by Survey Monkey, “More than a quarter of Americans (26 percent) have definitely experienced a microaggression at work and another 22 percent are unsure. Thirty-six percent have witnessed one (with another 24 percent unsure).”
People with disabilities, minorities and women are often the recipients of these biases. “For almost two-thirds of women, microaggressions are a workplace reality,” according to McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org’s study, in which 317 American companies participated and more than 40,000 people were surveyed. The same study states that “Black women, in particular, deal with a greater variety of microaggressions.” And in a study conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, “34 percent of respondents with disabilities say they have experienced discrimination or bias while working at their current companies.”
Microaggressions are typically a result of implicit biases, though they may also stem from conscious biases. According to a study by the Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, biases, also known as unconscious biases, our attitudes, prejudices, and stereotypes that influence “our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner,” which may not reflect the beliefs a person explicitly endorses. Because microaggressions are subtle acts of exclusion in everyday verbal and nonverbal behaviors, we must pay particular attention to spot them in the workplace.
Types of microaggressions and their impact in the workplace
The negative effects of microaggressions on both individuals and organizations are real. Repeated incidents can have serious emotional effects for people on the receiving end and can make it difficult for them to do their job, impacting their work performance and ability to thrive. Microaggressions can harm collaboration, affect business outcomes, and eventually erode work culture. They appear in three forms as identified in a study by professors at Columbia University: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.
Microassaults: are the explicit use of insults, slurs, or other statements, behavior, or imagery that convey exclusion based on a person’s characteristics. Example: refusing to work with or serve someone due to their race, national origin, or other characteristics.
Microinsults: are slights, insensitive comments, or other demeaning verbal and non-verbal conduct that carry a hidden insulting message toward the recipient. Example: when a supervisor appears distracted or disregards when a minority employee is contributing to a group discussion during a meeting.
Microinvalidations: are statements that exclude or negate the experience of a person, resulting in the negation of their identity or heritage. For example: when a minority employee expresses they are being treated differently or unfairly by another colleague, and another employee responds that they are being too sensitive.
“As suggested by the name, microaggressions seem small; but compounded over time, they can have a deleterious impact on an employee’s experience, physical health, and psychological well-being.”
— “The Value of Belonging at Work,” Harvard Business Review, December 2019