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To Reduce Microaggression, Help Employees Identify the Issue

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We all are grappling with our new normal; for some that’s a return to offices and personal contact with colleagues. For others, it’s how we continue to operate virtually.

As we collaborate and work in new ways, I’m reminded that our company culture matters more than ever. That sense of belonging is a fundamental human need. We want to feel included. There are ways in which people are changing their behaviors, and we also can be mindful of what can continue to change for the better.

We want a culture that encourages every employee to bring their best and full selves to work. As I examine how we equip our people managers to support employees in these changing times, I am developing new training and developing content that specifically addresses a topic that influences that sense of belonging: reducing microaggression in the workplace.

Microaggression is harm committed against someone in a group who is less powerful. This is about power dynamics, using words and actions, whether conscious or unconscious, about difference. It could be about race, gender, age, tenure – or any type of otherness.

This is a sensitive area because few people recognize this behavior in themselves. Comments often are subtle and unintentionally repressive, viewed as an attempt at humor or even inclusion.

Here are just a few examples of compliments, comments or questions from a person in a position of power/authority or from a majority group, toward someone with less power or from a minority group, that can be considered microaggression:

  • Your English is great for someone who isn’t from this country.
  • I would never have guessed someone so young could do so well on that project.
  • Where was your family from, before they came here?
  • Oh, you’re the boss?
  • With your religious upbringing I’m surprised you’re so open minded.
  • You’re so articulate.

Microaggression is death by a thousand paper cuts. While each might feel insignificant, collectively microaggression is damaging. Every time something like this happens, it carves away at an employee’s feelings of security, of being an equal contributor, of deserving of space, of belonging.

According to Harvard Business Review, if workers feel like they belong, there’s a significant increase in job performance, a drop in turnover risk, and a reduction in sick days.

This work matters, to current and future employees.

How to Address Microaggression in the Workplace

It’s important to call this out for what it is because that’s how you create change and generate allies instead of bystanders. That’s what makes our work culture different. We don’t avoid hard conversations.

When we know better, we do better. Here are a few tips for handling microaggression in the workplace.

If you are the person who made someone else uncomfortable:

  • Try to understand the impact you had on someone else. Avoid saying you were just kidding. Saying you didn’t mean it makes light of the other person’s experience and feelings.
  • Validate their feelings and while it wasn’t your intention, you understand that your comments created a negative impact.
  • Move forward. Don’t hyper focus on your words and overcompensate the next time to see that person.
  • Learn from the mistake. Become an ally rather than a bystander and if you see this happen to someone else, help to stop it.

If you’re on the receiving end:

  • Assume positive intent and that the person did not mean harm and is simply unaware of a bias.
  • Do your best to stay calm. Consider perhaps that the person speaking to you probably has no idea that the comment was hurtful.
  • If you are able, address the situation in the moment (“That joke made me uncomfortable”). If not, it’s ok to schedule time for later.
  • Be factual and in the moment. Don’t over-reach to defend all people in a minority. Address what happened to you. Use this as an opportunity to enlighten.

No matter what our current work situation is – from home, in small groups, in an office – we are looking for acceptance and appreciation by those around us. Help create inclusion, in big ways and in small.


Candace Barnes
Candace Barnes
Manager, Global Diversity Programs, Global Talent Organization & Culture of Inclusion, Rockwell Automation
Candace Barnes
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