However unintentional or well-meaning they may be, microaggressions in the workplace should not be ignored or go unaddressed, said a diversity and inclusion expert at American Family Insurance.
“Microaggressions are typically fueled by an unconscious bias,” said Brian Jones, who presented at a recent Society of Insurance Research workshop on the topic of microaggressions in the workplace. “They are often backhanded compliments. They might sound nice but what they’re really saying is you’re not expected to be able to do the things they’re complimenting you on, or you’re not expected to be able to achieve the goals because of your background or history.”
Jones said the slights, indignities, put-downs and insults occur every day to people of color, women, LGBT and other marginalized populations. They occur “outside the level of conscious awareness,” without realization of the amount of harm they can inflict. And, however unintentional, those who commit microaggressions must be called out to prevent dangerous repercussions in the corporate environment, he said.
“If someone accidentally stepped on your foot, you can’t ignore the impact of how it felt,” Jones said. “There was no intent to hurt, but it hurt. And we cannot pretend that it didn’t.”
‘I Love Gay Couples’
So what are microaggressions? Jones listed a number of examples he said were typical of what he has heard in corporate circumstances.
- “I know you said you’re from Des Moines, but where are you really from, like before Iowa?” said to a brown-skinned person with a strong accent.
- “I never would have guessed you grew up in a bad neighborhood; you act so professional and well-spoken.” Jones said this has been said to him several times.
- “I love working with you; you think just like a man,” said to a female coworker.
- “You and your partner are so cute. I love gay couples; why don’t you give each other a kiss,” said to an openly gay employee and his partner at an after-hours corporate function.
The penalty for not addressing these statements or just letting them go, Jones said, is that they will build until a breaking point is reached when a large reaction, confrontation or even violence could result.
“It you wait to acknowledge the microaggressions until the moment you explode, it will appear you are overreacting and making a bigger deal out it than it’s worth,” Jones said. “You can create a very uncomfortable situation for an entire team by not addressing these incidents early on.”
So first, Jones said, the victim of such a microaggression, or an advocate for the that person, much check their state of mind before approaching the offender and must remember most slights were never intended.
“You have to extend grace,” he said. “That helps so when you start the conversation you don’t have anger bubbling up within yourself.”
To defuse the situation, Jones said it’s best to start by reminding the person you understand they didn’t mean to take the comment the way they did.
“Just giving them that grace upfront and acknowledge you know they didn’t try to hurt anyone’s feelings helps them to receive the message better,” he said. “Being aggressive about it yourself will make it harder for them to hear the message.”
Address It Right Away
It is sometimes easy to get lost in the awkwardness of the conversation, Jones said. But if the issue is not directly stated or explained, the offending person will walk away without understanding what they did wrong.
“You want to know exactly what it is that you want to address when you call it out and offer an alternative,” he said. “Something like: ’You know, hey, when I heard that statement, I took it this way, and I just want to make sure that it doesn’t put you in a bad light. Maybe you could try saying it a different t way.’ And in some cases, the best alternative that you can offer is: ‘Yeah, maybe not say that again.’”
Regardless of how a microaggression situation is handled, Jones said there’s no perfect interaction and few people will react kindly to being called out.
“People react differently because they’re embarrassed or because their pride was hurt,” he said. “They’ll try to say it was a joke and no big deal. In cases like that, we need to meet them where they are. The best you can hope for is that they took time, thought it over and realized what they did.”
Several people attending the workshop regaled participants with tales of microaggressions aimed at them and how they handled them. One Asian woman said a coworker always and intentionally called her by a wrong name. A Black man said a coworker touched his hair without permission. And still another talked about being uncomfortable with things said by superiors in his office.
“That’s always tough,” said Jones. “You’re afraid if you say something, it might impact your career.”
One approach, he suggested, was to take the complaint to the superior executive at the end of the day and position it as a helping hint.
“You might say you’re bringing it to him because with his level of clout in the organization you don’t want anything he said to be misconstrued and might hurt you,” Jones said.
Overall, Jones said, we all have unconscious bias – and sometimes conscious bias – and it’s likely everyone has been on the receiving end of a microaggression.
“The things to remember are humility when called out,” he said. “And extend grace when calling it out.”
Doug Bailey is a journalist and freelance writer who lives outside of Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.
© Entire contents copyright 2022 by InsuranceNewsNet.com Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reprinted without the expressed written consent from InsuranceNewsNet.com.