As huge corporations like General Motors manage the backlash regarding certain leadership that did little to combat a culture of overt racism against employees of color, we’re reminded that while most people today don’t condone racist or other discriminatory behavior, it does exist. It’s easy to point fingers and proclaim that your company isn’t like that, but it’s the more subtle forms of discrimination today that often do the most to divide an office. As leaders within these organizations, it’s important that we’re mentally and emotionally aware of how covert racism could impact the work environment. Such is the case with microaggressions. Let’s take a look at what these are and why they are so damaging to workplace culture.

What Is a Microaggression? Us vs Them

It’s usually a subtle act of discrimination that most people don’t even realize they’re committing. People who commit them may even become defensive, “I’m not a racist.” “What could possibly be wrong with asking ‘where are you from?” Let’s take a look, shall we?

Prince Charles of the United Kingdom may be asking that very question. Early last year, he reportedly asked a woman “And where are you from?”.

The woman responded, “I’m from Manchester, UK.”

He laughed and said, “Well, you don’t look like it.”

The young woman’s mother had been born in Ghana. While we can’t know Prince Charles’ thoughts, the statement suggests that deep down he had an image in his mind of what a person from the UK looks like and this woman didn’t fit that perception. The prince had established an “Us vs Them” scenario. It demonstrated that he saw her as an “Other” because she didn’t look like what he thought people in the UK look like.

This kind of statement and others are made every day in many workplaces, making co-workers who may be doing the same job feel as if they are somehow “Others” for no other reason than they look different.

How Microaggressions Add Up?

They’re called “micro” because often they’re small and often spoken or done out of ignorance rather than overt feelings, but they add up and simply becoming aware of them can completely change the dynamic in the workplace.

Have you ever done any of the following or seen the following in the workplace? Someone…

  • Smiles more or talks in a “sweeter tone” when speaking with someone of a different race, other ability, gender, or other broad group
  • Compliments a person based upon a broad racial stereotype. (e.g., Oh, you’re from Mexico. Such hard working people.)
  • Demeans a person by using a stereotype associated with another group. (e.g., You throw like a girl! or Grow a pair!)
  • Makes (even jokingly) discriminatory comments that make certain people feel like that don’t belong or are being treated differently (e.g. This table is white’s only. Hey, I’m just kiddin’ with you, Man. or Ladies’ first.)
  • Invalidating the experiences of others who perceive microaggressions (e.g. you’re just being sensitive)

With that last one, it’s important to realize that one incident may just be a single event of many that a co-worker experienced today.

How to Reduce Microaggressions in the Workplace

First become aware of them yourself. Observe, but don’t act to assess the environment in its natural state. Second, increase awareness among leadership. When possible, develop strategies together.  Third, if you believe that only a few people are engaging in microaggressions, speak with each one on one. Be aware that most people who commit microaggressions think they’re doing nothing wrong and may get defensive. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Try to get them to think about and acknowledge how microaggressions might make others feel rather than telling them. This can be particularly effective if others admire these individuals. Finally, educate employees about what microaggressive behavior is and how it may impact the work environment as you continue to nurture a more empathic work environment.