Microaggressions in the workplace

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Health Assured team

04 October 2021

For decades, we have seen case after case of mistreatment towards people from ethnic backgrounds and their communities. Last year racism in the US was brought to the surface as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery faced abhorrent brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement continued to highlight severe inequalities within our society and systems on a global scale. 

However, racism is not the only area where one can face discrimination. Discrimination is stereotypically seen as overt and obvious acts of hate, including verbal and behavioural abuse. However, discrimination can happen in smaller, sometimes inadvertent, acts, which highlight our unconscious bias. For us to support our colleagues and peers from minority backgrounds, we need to recognise our own unconscious biases. This can be very challenging and uncomfortable, and we may find ourselves becoming defensive over our actions. This is understandable and valid. However, challenging discrimination is a process and we can start with ourselves.

In honour of Black History Month this October, we're addressing microaggressions in the workplace. We'll cover what microaggressions are and some common types that can occur between colleagues. All change must start somewhere. So we're urging employees—and employers—to educate themselves and take action against racism when it occurs. 

What is discrimination?

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 states that there are nine protected characteristics; age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. This act has been developed to provide a legal framework to “protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all”. Thus, protecting individuals from unfair treatment. Discrimination can stem from these protected characteristics.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are described as, direct or indirect, expressions of prejudice, through verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities. Although often unintentional, they can be described as negative slights or insults. Microaggressions are often so subtle, one does not realise they are using them. However, the use of microaggressions can create a toxic and unsafe environment for many people from minority backgrounds. The term “micro-” in microaggressions refers to person-to-person communications. This is different from the systemic challenges formed in social structures and institutions. Microaggressions have been found to be a significant risk factor for diminished wellbeing and productivity at work.

Here are some examples of microaggressions:

“Where are you really from?” / “Where are you actually from?”

Asking someone where they are from is generally a conversation starter. However, asking in a way to establish someone’s ethnicity or race can imply that a person is not really from the UK or does not truly belong in their country, just because of their appearance.

Receiving that question again and again can be frustrating for the person of colour and presupposes that being a person of colour is inconsistent with being from the UK.

The next time you want to inquire about someone's race, ethnicity or national origin, ask yourself: “Why do I want to know?” (Vega, 2017)

What to say instead: Nothing. If the person in question wants to discuss their identity, they can bring it up at their own discretion. 

“Your name is so hard to pronounce” or “That’s a weird/strange name”

These remarks suggest that the person in question does not fit in culturally or linguistically. It also suggests that their name and culture are not worth taking the time to learn about. If one can learn to pronounce Tchaikovsky, one can learn to pronounce any name.

What to say instead: If you cannot pronounce a colleague's name, just ask them how to say it. Don't point out that it is foreign or unfamiliar to you. 

Making assumptions

People from the same race, ethnicity, or culture may have various similarities. However, everyone deserves to be treated as an individual. Comparing colleagues’ experiences or behaviours based on specific characteristics strips one of their individual identity and narrows them down to that particular characteristic. For example, assuming the ethnicity of a colleague’s partner based on your colleague’s race/ethnicity, or assuming one’s sexuality or gender.

What to say instead: Nothing. Don't assume a person behaves or identifies in a certain way due to how they present or your knowledge of certain characteristics.

Invasion of personal space and inappropriate touching

One’s default behaviour in the workplace should be not to touch their colleagues without consent. Many people are uncomfortable with physical interactions, so it is important to respect boundaries. For example, Black women usually experience inappropriate touching of their hair, often without the individual asking for permission to do so, or women finding men tend to touch their lower backs when moving past them.

What to do instead: Nothing. Think of why you feel the need to touch a person? Is it appropriate? Is it necessary? Maybe ask permission first before you touch a colleague.

Making jokes about one’s identity or protected characteristics

“Lighten up!” or “It’s just a joke” is a common refrain when someone tries to address an insensitive comment or microaggression. No one likes to be a punchline, especially when the comment is directed at something a person cannot change about themselves. In addition, your colleagues have probably heard the insensitive comment or joke numerous times throughout their life.

What to do instead: Instead of becoming defensive, take a moment to listen to your colleague and their concerns about your behaviour. Make them feel heard and valued and adjust your behaviour accordingly.

Mistakes help us to grow and learn how to be better allies and colleagues. This process does take time, as you are unlearning a lot of preconceived notions and stereotypes. It can be easy to feel like a negative response from a colleague is a personal attack, but in fact, your colleague is trying to help you on this journey. The best thing to do is to acknowledge that it happened, be patient, and listen.

If you have experienced microaggressions in the workplace, or feel you may have engaged in these behaviours, and are seeking some support, please do not hesitate to reach out to our counsellors on our 24/7, 365 helpline: 0844 891 0355. 

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