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Addressing Microaggressions in the Workplace

Updated: Sep 30, 2022

In light of May being Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage month, we want to focus on an issue that commonly effects members of minority communities within organizations and our society at large- microaggressions. Microaggressions have become a hot topic of discussion in recent years due to the increase in hates crimes targeting the Asian American community and the resurgence of the BLM movement. Across America, employees, departments, and organizations are making steps towards better understanding how to address them and more importantly, how to eliminate their existence.

Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional behaviors, or statements that send an underlying message to minorities, typically to undermine or belittle their identity. Some examples include asking racial minorities "where they are really from" or telling them that “they speak good English”. The research to date, has noted that microaggressions often lead to negative outcomes for the person on the receiving end. They tend to be more stressed, less satisfied with their job, less committed to their job, and have increased depression and anxiety.

The difficulty with microaggressions is that they are often unintentional by the bystander, and so addressing microaggressions is harder when individuals do not realize when they commit microaggressions in general. As easily as we can learn how to navigate the use of Teams and online workspaces to adapt to the changing work environment, I believe that we can also begin to learn about microaggressions, how to identify them, how to address them, and how to phase them out from the workplace.

Identifying Microaggressions

Arguably the hardest part is becoming in tune with microaggressions so that they aren’t just a part of conversations that we nod along with or are complacent in allowing them to pass. Being able to identify microaggressions requires an understanding of microaggressions and their underlying message that accompanies them. Identifying microaggressions is easier when individuals and organizations make the consistent effort to understand microaggressions, to be more present in conversations, and asking clarifying questions.

Microaggressions become more easily recognized the more we open up dialogues and increase awareness surrounding these situations. Often times, it doesn’t feel like a discriminatory comment to tell a Black woman to "calm down" or to ask an Asian colleague to bring fried rice to the company potluck, but by increasing awareness, we can begin to see that there is nothing wrong with others cultural communication styles, and that not all Asians eat, cook, and enjoy fried rice. The key here is to ensure that these statements do not passively float by us as they occur. To begin to identify microaggressions in the workplace, we have to take an active stance towards hearing these statements, rather than pretending they didn’t mean it, or didn’t say what we think they said.

Addressing Microaggressions

Recently, Dr. Derald Wing Sue and colleagues developed a framework for interventions, specifically for microaggressions, termed microinterventions. Microinterventions are daily and informal statements, words, or behaviors that are designed to communicate to targets of microaggressions their value as a person, validate their experiences, support, and encourage them, and reassure them that they are not alone. Microinterventions are like a toolkit the employees can use to help show others the stereotype that they might be communicating, disarming the microaggression by expressing disagreement, educating others, or places to go to seek external interventions.

Arming employees with this toolkit can help them have words to use and say to express their disagreement with the microaggression in the moment. Many times, individuals aren’t sure what to do or what to say when they witness a microaggression. By giving employees the toolkit and explaining how it can be used can better prepare employees to be active allies in the workplace.