A micro-aggression is a statement, action or incident regarded as an indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against people of a marginalized group. Micro-aggressions are dog whistles; they are coded language that appears to mean one thing but has a different, specific and usually negative resonance for the target marginalized group.
In our workplaces, we do a lot of training and reminding of people surrounding bullying, discrimination and harassment. We provide long, detailed lists of behaviors to refrain from in order to not bully, discriminate or harass anyone. We provide even longer and more detailed lists for managers of these behaviors.
But we never talk about micro-aggression. We don’t talk about what it is. We don’t talk about how or why it shows up. We don’t talk about the best way to address it when it does.
In our workplaces, we are slow to act on complaint issues that are not overt. We immediately know what to do when someone uses a racial slur or touches someone inappropriately. We don’t know as quickly what to do with someone who regularly describes Black men as “aggressive” or asks Black women if their hair is real or volunteers the women in the meeting to take meeting minutes.
We should. But we don’t.
We’ve been conditioned to ignore micro-aggression. We’ve been conditioned to ignore the dog whistles. We tell ourselves that we didn’t hear what we heard. We tell ourselves that the aggressor “didn’t mean it like that” or that the target is “being too sensitive”. When we do address it, we often approach the aggressor apologetically and downplay the severity of the issue. “What used to be acceptable back in the day will get you fired now”
Newsflash: It was never acceptable. TimesUp!
When micro-aggression goes ignored and under-addressed , a few things happen:
- It continues … Our gentle approach to addressing micro-aggression sends the message to aggressors that their behavior is OK and the target is the problem.
- It gets worse … Our gentle approach to addressing micro-aggression sends the message to the aggressor that their behavior is protected and the target is the trouble-maker.
- It escalates … Our gentle approach to addressing micro-aggression leaves the target feeling they have to defend themselves. They begin to argue back with the aggressor publicly. They refuse work assignments which cause them to have to interact with the aggressor. They exit the organization and pursue separation claims or disparage the company online. They commit acts of workplace violence.
Think I’m going too far? Do a google search on recent workplace shootings. Read some negative Glassdoor ratings. I promise you’ll find ignored and under-addressed occurrences of micro-aggression at the heart. The same can be said for many if not most occurrences of bullying, discrimination and harassment.
Micro-aggression is the seed. Failing to address it allows it to grow. Eventually, it will choke out all the diversity and inclusion you’ve worked to achieve in your workplace.
So what do you do about it?
- Believe the targets … When an employee brings a complaint of micro-aggression to you, believe them. Believe they heard it as intended. Believe they received it as intended. Believe their right to be offended. Believe their story and affirm them.
- Get understanding … If you’re not a member of the target group yourself or familiar with challenges they face, you may not understand why the behavior is so upsetting. Don’t discount the issue just because it doesn’t make immediate sense to you. Research the context of the statement if the negative meaning isn’t clear or obvious to you.
- Educate yourself and others … Learn in general about common micro-aggressions in our workplaces. Take a look at your team or organization’s population. Become aware of how people identify and the racial, ethnic and religious make-up. Incorporate teaching about micro-aggression into your required trainings.
- Address issues firmly … Treat reports of micro-aggression behaviors as serious as all other reports of bullying, discrimination and harassment. Investigate it. Document it formally. If the issue repeats or escalates, use progressive discipline against the aggressor. Do not send mixed messages, blame shift or coddle aggressors. Apply the same zero tolerance approach to micro-aggression as all other inappropriate behaviors.
Micro-aggression is bias. Conscious or unconscious. Intentional or unintentional. It doesn’t matter. Bias is bias. And it has no place in your workplace if inclusion is one of your goals.
Micro-aggression is the seed that, if allowed to grow unchecked, will become bullying, discrimination, harassment, disengagement, turnover, liability and violence. Stop it before it does irrevocable damage.