In a collective discussion on diversity and inclusion in a professional environment, it’s important to broach the topic of microaggressions. While large companies are equipped with solid procedures to correct these situations, the situation in SMEs can prove to be more complex, particularly due to the proximity of employees to one another and the small size of teams.
What are Microaggressions?
The term microaggression is used to describe “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”. People most impacted are those generally belonging to marginalized groups, such as women, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, and racialized people.
The feeling of being different from your fellow employees because of your gender, your race, or your ethnic origin is not only harmful for the person experiencing this feeling, but also for the organization as a whole. The daily recurrence of these negative experiences leads to what is called an emotional charge. This charge causes people to be on the defensive when encountering prejudices and can, as a result, lead to negative impacts on their mental and physical health, as well as on their well-being and their ability to function at work.
Microaggression as Perceived by the Victim
If, after a colleague makes a comment or asks a question, you are surprised by feelings of embarrassment, irritation, disappointment, frustration, disillusionment, confusion, or even anger, you were probably the victim of a microaggression. First of all, allow yourself to feel this emotion. All emotions are legitimate and must be taken into consideration in your decision whether or not to react to this microaggression, as well as to how you will respond and when.
Whether you choose to express yourself or remain silent leads to consequences regardless, and it’s up to you to assess the importance of this incident in your personal and professional life. Remember that you have to do what is best for you, and not for the perpetrator of the microaggression. Obviously, you can respond right away, but if your emotions are strong, we advise that you wait before revisiting the incident.
It’s important to note that microaggressions often occur inadvertently and that the words or gestures perceived as offensive by the victim are not necessarily intentional on the part of the perpetrator. Simply taking the time to look at it in greater depth can in this sense calm emotions and de-escalate a potential conflict: “What exactly did you mean to say? How do you understand that?”
This approach allows you to better assess the perpetrator’s intentions by giving them the chance to express—or excuse—themselves. It also gives you the opportunity to explain how you interpreted the words or gesture in question and the impact this had on you. If the originator demonstrates their good intentions, tell them you appreciate their willingness to clarify their intentions and that you hope they appreciate your need to clarify the situation.
Microaggression as Perceived by the Bystander
A workplace is the setting for a multitude of human interactions that we witness daily. If you feel uncomfortable after a remark or a gesture made by one colleague towards another, try first of all to see if your feelings seem to be shared by the person being targeted and/or by other bystanders. Note that just because your feeling isn’t shared, doesn’t mean it’s not valid.
Because the nature of relationships between colleagues are unique to each team and each business, it’s up to you to choose the best strategies to manage the situation and identify, as needed, the people most likely to support your approach. In some cases, you can choose to address either the person you feel has been aggrieved, or the perpetrator of the microaggression. In other cases, you can choose to address a third party (for example, your immediate superior, the head of human resources) who will either advise you on the best strategy to adopt, or who can intervene on your behalf.
Microaggression as Perceived by the Perpetrator
Nobody is immune from unconscious biases deeply anchored in the human psyche, capable of emerging at any moment through an awkward choice of words, a stereotyped comment or an inopportune joke, for example.
Does one of your actions give you the impression of having made a person feel uncomfortable? Think about the situation and ask yourself about your intentions, as well as the possible perceptions and reactions to your conduct. Do you have doubts about the situation? Ask the opinion of bystanders or people you trust. If nothing is substantiated from the outside, or if the people you talk to minimize the incident, this doesn’t mean your conduct was appropriate. If the sense of unease exists and persists, it is doubtless best to address the incident.
You can suggest meeting with the victim and agree with them on conditions that would be conducive to a respectful and constructive exchange. To achieve this, it is up to the victim to choose the time, the place and the eventual presence of third party. If they do not wish to meet, do not insist, and maintain an open attitude.
Before the meeting, it is important that you be prepared to listen. Reflect on what you will say, but especially on what you will hear: the objective is not to justify yourself, but rather, to welcome and accept the feelings of the person you feel you have aggrieved.
Lastly, remember that throughout the course of a lifetime, everyone might be a victim of, a bystander to, or a perpetrator of several microaggressions, some more than others. Recalling microaggressions that we have been subject to allows us to better understand what feelings they give rise to in someone else.
Towards the Resolution of a Problem: Communicating After a Microaggression
The creation of a “safe space” helps to minimize the adverse effects linked to microaggressions. A safe space is a physical or symbolic space where it is possible to gather with the goal of communicating about experiences of marginalization.
In this space it is possible to safely discuss conflict situations and incidents of microaggression. The parties must ensure that discussions unfold in a context where respect, listening, openness and empathy prevail, conditions essential to healthy communication. The discussion can unfold between the two parties concerned, or with the support of a mediator, depending on what is needed.
Preventing Microaggressions at the Workplace: Strategies
Conscience, Introspection and Empathy
Even if they are often unconscious, microaggressions generate negative repercussions in individuals. Each person has their own unique set of personal beliefs and baggage—a first step towards inclusion consists of being aware of this. Being aware of the sociohistorical roots that condition the perception we have of ourselves and others is also essential to adopting an open-minded, pacifist and empathetic stance towards human diversity.
Practise Pausing for a Moment
- Before asking someone at work a personal question…
- Before comparing someone to something or someone else…
- Before trying to describe someone’s personality…
…pause for a moment.
When you pause for a moment, it’s possible to think about the potential impact of your words on a colleague: “Could they feel offended?” A simple way to better equip yourself is to do some research to check whether what you have in mind and what you want to say are offensive.
Calling yourself inclusive is not enough. Openness and inclusion must be translated into words, gestures and a sincere consideration of the uniqueness of others. Remember that in this field, there’s no in between; not participating in inclusion is contributing to exclusion.
Promoting Inclusion and Diversity at the Workplace: A Training Workshop
To promote inclusion and diversity at the workplace, the YWCA Montreal offers accessible tools on its website, as well as a training workshop. The goal of this workshop is to shed light on unconscious biases, but also to support the implementation of good practices to transform organizations into environments that are socially and culturally diverse and conducive to the self-actualization of their employees.
To find out more about our workshop, visit our page: https://www.ydesfemmesmtl.org/en/whereareyoufrom/
This project was developed with funding from Binam (Bureau d’intégration des nouveaux arrivants à Montréal) of the City of Montreal and the Government of Quebec.
 As defined by psychologist Derald Wing Sue.
 Also referred to as a positive space or a neutral zone.