Psychologist and Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue and other researchers further refined the definition to refer to microaggressions as: “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color”.
Microassaults: Conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets or deliberately serving a White person before a person of colour in a restaurant.
Microinsults: Verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity.
Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of colour.
Discussion of microaggressions often focuses on race. However, it is important to note that the term can be used to describe slights directed towards other marginalized groups on the basis of disability, faith, sexual identity, gender identity, and citizenship status, among other characteristics.
How microaggressions impact the workplace
It is well known that bias (whether conscious or unconscious) can underlie workplace interactions in a subtle way. The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s 2005 Policy and guidelines on racism and racial discrimination provides examples of “subtle racial discrimination” in the workplace such as:
- Exclusion from formal or informal networks
- Denial of mentoring or developmental opportunities such as secondments and training that was made available to others
- Differential management practices such as excessive monitoring and documentation or deviation from written policies or standard practices
- Disproportionate blame for an incident
- Assignment to less desirable positions or job duties
- Treating normal differences of opinion as confrontational or insubordinate
- Characterizing normal communication as rude or aggressive
- Penalizing a person for failing to get along with someone else, e.g. a co-worker or manager, when one of the reasons for the tension is racially discriminatory attitudes or behaviour of the co-worker or manager
In Dr. Sue’s book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, he speaks about certain racial groups such as Black people being “ghettoized” in certain jobs due to prejudiced assumptions that they have lower intelligence and skills. Examples of those jobs include: “support services, personnel, human resources, [and] community relations...instead of top decision-making positions.” (p 210). Dr. Sue and other researchers have also pointed out the discriminatory impact that microaggressions have on the recruitment, retention and promotion of marginalized groups (p 210). The same book also highlights that microaggressions cause both physical and psychological distress, damage productivity and hinder the ability of employees to move up the ranks of an organization. (p 213).
It is clear that microaggressions have an impact on the health and well-being of employees and can directly interfere with their ability to carry out their job duties. As a result, this can negatively affect the employer’s own objectives and operations. It is important for employers to turn their minds towards dealing with microaggressions in order to ensure that they are providing a healthy and productive work environment for everyone.
Three tips for employers in addressing workplace microaggressions
1. Provide training in order to increase awareness about micoraggressions. These issues are not necessarily covered in organizational discrimination and harassment policies, and can often be overlooked as a result.
One example of a best practice is the University of Calgary which has developed and offered a human resources course entitled “Unmasking Micro-Aggressions in the Workplace”.
Various organizations have created online spaces where people publically and anonymously discuss microaggressions, including ‘The Microaggressions Project’ and ‘McGill Microaggressions’.
3. Managers can begin to consciously use “microaffirmations”, i.e. small appreciative gestures like a smile or a nod that acknowledge the worth of employees as individuals.
Color Magazine USA does a great job of explaining how microaffirmations are the “antidote to workplace inequities”.