How To Handle Microaggressions At Work
Words: Janet Asante
You don’t have to take those not-so-subtle comments at the office—here’s how to get the upper hand.
Perhaps you’ve been told that you’re articulate for a ___ person. (Feel free to insert black/Hispanic/immigrant or any nationality that is considered foreign.) I’m sure your response was a mental eye roll if it happened in the workplace.
Did you know there is a word to describe these encounters? It’s called a microaggression. At its root, microaggressions are defined as everyday slights related to sexism, racism, or homophobia. The term was coined by Harvard University professor and psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the ‘70s, and researcher Gerald Sue also conducted extensive studies on this topic. “Microaggression” comes with a family of other micros: micro-messages, micro-invalidation, and micro-assaults.
While it’s helpful to have a word that you can look up when you can’t put a finger on this treatment, all the micros give me a headache. Let’s focus on the actual actions that make you feel small and invisible in the workplace.
The actions are subtle snubs, dismissive looks, and a general sense of being devalued. These things can happen to anyone regardless of race. When you look at these actions as a whole, it’s hard to call it out because you aren’t sure if your personality is just rubbing the perpetrator the wrong way or maybe your work just isn’t good enough. You wonder if you’re making mountains out of ant hills. But the evidence builds up; you do the same work as your peers and your manager or teammates continue to find fault with your work. They are swift to call you out on mistakes and speak to you in condescending or dismissive manner.
When mired in this situation at work, your instinct will be to call the person out and let the chips fall where they may. It will feel great after you speak up, but the moment you use the “racist” or “sexist” word, all discussions and goodwill towards you ends, plain and simple.
There are levels to microaggressions. Here are a few tips to counter the different levels:
For the random comment: “Isn’t it super easy to get into an HBCU? The standards are so low” or “You are so articulate”... Ask clarifying questions.
“Why are you surprised that I am articulate? Help me understand why you are surprised that I speak well?”
“Why do you think it is easy to get into an HBCU? What does low standards mean?”
Asking clarifying questions will force them to see their own biases without you calling them out. Listen intently to their response and ask more clarifying questions or just nod and walk way. The goal here is to lead them to the water and let them fall in all by themselves.
For The never-satisfied manager who uses dismissive and condescending tactics towards you… Schedule an information-gathering meeting.
Beware of such managers, they like to manage in the gray and continuously move the goal line so that they never have to truly value your work. You must manage up and hold them to task by asking them to be specific.
Here’s a sample script:
“I’d like to understand from you what success looks like at company X or on your team. Can you give me specific examples of what I need to do to be successful and receive recognition?”
In this question, you are asking what it takes for you to be seen and no longer invisible in his or her eyes. If he or she beats around the bush, ask them to describe someone on the team they see as successful and ask them to explain exactly why that’s the case.
During the meeting take copious notes and write down everything that was said to see how you can align your goals with the information provided.
Send an email to the manager after the meeting, thanking them for the meeting and summarizing the success factors described in the meeting. Inform him or her that you are committed to meeting the success factors so you can be recognized for your achievements. Ask for monthly follow-up meetings to review the success factors and your progress in achieving them. Keep your own personal notes on your progress and bring those examples to your one-on-one meetings.
For the blatant racist or sexist comment… Go to HR.
Look to see if there are any witnesses. Repeat what he or she said to you back to them. Confirm that you heard them correctly. Run to HR or your ethics officer. Inform them that you would like to make a formal complaint. Report exactly what was said, share the names of witnesses, and ask for a formal investigation into the matter. It will be uncomfortable for a few weeks, but you should never be subjected to blatant discrimination.
While you can never change someone’s unconscious bias towards you, you can direct them on how you want to measured by keeping your standards clear, your goals achievable, and the micros in check.
Janet Asante is a human resources executive with 18 years of leadership experience and a successful track record serving as trusted advisor to executive leadership team members and employees from all walks of life. She has comprehensive HR leadership experience in private, non-profit, government and information technology industries. Janet is passionate about helping people of color bring their best self to work and navigate challenges at workplaces everywhere.
Have you experienced microaggressions at work? how did you handle them? tell us in the comments.