Often, workplace discrimination isn’t as blatant as someone using an ethnic slur or telling someone they aren’t qualified for a job because of their race, gender, age or disability. Many employees — particularly women, people of color, and LGBTQ and disabled people — are subject to what are called “microagressions” on a regular basis.
The term got some notoriety recently on social media when an actress called out former Glee star Lea Michele for making her experience on the show “a living hell” through “traumatic microaggressions.” Michele apologized, saying her actions weren’t based on the other actress’s race, adding, “that’s not really the point. What matters is that I clearly acted in ways which hurt other people.”
Microaggressions often come from people who don’t realize they’re insulting someone. They may even think they’re complimenting them. One Asian-American professor who has studied microaggression, notes that he’s often complimented on how well he speaks English. He often responds, “Thank you; I hope so. I was born here.”
Microaggressions often come from assumptions about people. A man may assume the sole woman in a meeting is in a clerical position and ask her to get coffee. Someone may tell a gay woman that she doesn’t “look” like a lesbian. They might tell a colleague in a wheelchair that they seem very independent. Sometimes microaggressions arise from curiosity — like asking a trans person just how much surgery they’ve had or asking a gay person how they and their spouse plan to have children.
Of course, microggressions occur outside the workplace as well. However, people shouldn’t have to endure them at work.
So what can you do?
First, call out the microaggression. You don’t have to do it with anger. The point is to make the person aware of what they’re doing and perhaps educate them. Some people use humor. Others will say something like, “I know you thought that was a compliment, but here’s why it’s hurtful.”
If the behavior continues, keep a record of it. Note who it was, the date, time and location and any witnesses. If it’s impacting your work (or even how you feel about coming to work), you have every right to take the matter to Human Resources to see what they can and will do about it. An organization that allows continued microaggressions may be equally unresponsive when discrimination and harassment occur.