Imagine the scene, just after being promoted to a senior role, you arrive at a meeting. No one there looks anything like you. As you take a seat, someone looks at you, sneers, and asks you to pour the coffees. Then as the meeting progresses to introductions, you say your name, and someone says they can’t pronounce it, so they shorten it. Then in a break in the meeting, you are asked where you are from originally, and someone else comments that you speak English very well. I don’t have to imagine this. These things have all happened to me.

These types of interactions are sadly commonplace for people from marginalised or under-represented groups. Things are said, comments are made, and each separate thing is difficult to pinpoint and address. These are the signs of something called microaggressions.

What are microaggressions?

They are language or behavioural slights or snubs which cause hurt, discrimination and upset the people who experience them. They are experienced by people in marginalised groups or under-represented groups. They are often difficult to pinpoint exactly. Microaggressions can often be so subtle, it’s hard to be clear on whether you’re committing one or if you’re on the receiving end. This makes it difficult to address them when they happen. And they are very common in the workplace, with many people citing microaggressions as reasons why they leave workplaces.

And microaggression is not a new ‘buzzword’. It’s a word which has been around since 1970. Coined by Professor and Psychiatrist Dr Chester Pierce from Harvard University. This form of aggression towards people can go on unnoticed by others for a long time and cause distress to those who experience it. And those who do talk about it struggle to be heard.

Examples of microaggressions

The best way to understand microaggressions are to look at some examples. Here are 7 examples of behaviours and language people experience:

  1. Asking ‘where are you from originally?’ to people from ethnic minorities
  2. Producing forms with only two boxes to check – male or female
  3. Being deliberately excluded from a work social event
  4. Mistaking people from similar ethnic backgrounds with each other
  5. Regularly organising meetings in a room with no wheelchair access
  6. Questioning if a person is really the one in charge
  7. Telling an older person that they probably don’t understand a technology

You get the picture? These are things that happen to people every day. All the time. And when they happen, the person who experiences them, has to decide whether they want to do something about it. Are you sure it happened? What did you say? These thoughts go through people’s minds. It’s easy to doubt it happened. And then whether the person meant to be aggressive or discriminate against them.

For example, asking someone with brown skin ‘Where are you from originally?’ might seem innocent. Or they could have someone comment to them that they speak English well. To the person on the receiving end, who might have been born in the UK and lived here all their lives, it feels as if the question and the comment are suggesting they do not belong. It’s a doubt of their legitimacy to exist here. And for anyone on the receiving end of this for the first time, it can feel incredibly upsetting and hurtful. For those who experience these things regularly, it can feel draining, that this is still going on.

And this is how microaggressions manifest themselves. It’s about how they are delivered and received. A woman might experience several of these microaggressions in one week, for example. She might be the Manager of a team and still be addressed as a junior in a meeting. Or it could be that a person’s name is laughed at and people ask if they can shorten it, while the rest of the room laughs along.

How to deal with them

There are two aspects to think about in how to deal with microaggressions.

Firstly, think about whether you could be someone who talks in this way to people. You might not realise you’re doing it. For example, do you expect women to do administrative tasks? Or do you always ask women if they have children and when they plan to have them? Or perhaps you are genuinely curious about which country a person is from? Now think about how those things could be perceived by the other person. And the best way to try and overcome this is to not presume things about people when you meet them. Avoid jumping to assumptions and get to know people.

Secondly, if you are experiencing them towards you, take some time to think about how to deal with them. This might be the first time you’re realising what these experiences are. Or it might be that you have put up with this type of behaviour, and now you want to do something about it.

If this behaviour is sustained from a particular person, then think about how you might want to address it with them. If it’s from a group of people, or from your organisation, then you are likely to need some help to address this. For dealing with this type of aggression towards you, it’s good to have examples, with times so you have information to hand to deal with it.  

And a more tricky situation is if you know this type of behaviour goes on in your organisation and you have to think about how to deal with it. Perhaps you have seen behaviour towards candidates in interviews? Or you might have seen behaviour and comments in meetings with customers or suppliers? Or it could be behaviour towards employees in other teams at your organisation. If you have seen this, and know it goes on, then think about and plan how you are going to address it.

Actions you can take

Handling all of these situations requires the space to be able to talk about it. And this is often where things go wrong. People behave defensively, aggressively or attempt to close down the conversations completely. Being able to talk about this requires honesty on all sides and clear examples. It requires being able to listen to different perspectives and work out how best to progress and handle the situation.

And it can’t just be left not addressed. Microaggressions are often the reason people leave companies. They are often the things that lead people to not progress with a job application. They can be the reason why your organisation develops a reputation for discriminatory behaviour.

So this is something that has to be addressed, talked about and worked on regularly. One discussion will not resolve a situation like this. It takes an agreement to work on it, and listen to all perspectives to drive change.

If this sounds daunting, we have a training course on Challenging Conversations to help you. And we can tailor the content of our workshops and training for your organisation. Email for more info