Microaggressions are an insidious systemic issue that commonly play out in the workplace, but what is it about workplace culture that perpetuates them? And what attitudes need to change in order to stamp them out from our working environments? As part of The Drum’s Agencies4Growth Festival, staff writer Ellen Ormesher speaks to industry leaders to find out more.
While they are a pertinent issue, microaggressions can be somewhat hard to define. It is commonly understood as a verbal, behavioral or environmental slight that intentionally or unintentionally communicates hostility or negative attitudes toward a marginalized group of people; some examples might be comments made to people of color or people from a non-white background, women, people within the LGBT+ community, people with disabilities or people from a working-class background.
“A microaggression is a bit like a paper cut,” explains Oliver Agency’s global chief people and inclusion officer Amina Folarin. “But they are rooted in bias about people from different ethnic groups, women or any other underrepresented groups.”
Explaining how they can present themselves, Quiet Storm co-founder Rania Robinson says that microaggressions can often take the form of playful banter. “For example, if you’re a working parent that needs to leave early and someone makes a joke about you being a ‘part-timer’. It can make people very uncomfortable,” she says.
Celine Craipeau, brand planning, senior director, Jellyfish, adds that intrusive questions are another form of microaggressions, but concedes that “context is everything” when it comes to what is or is not appropriate.
However, the long-term repercussions of microaggressions, should they go unchecked, are severe, says Bonnie Smith, senior vice-president, group account director at Jack Morton. “Lower confidence, in a place where you spend eight to 10 hours a day, has consequences on mental health and that translates to physical health, as well as a feeling of not belonging.”
Folarin adds that companies pay the price for leaving microaggressions unchecked through high rates of turnover. “It means that a lot of people from underrepresented communities are now working for themselves,” she says, as they now realize they don’t have to put up with inequitable working environments.
Speaking on how companies might begin to handle this issue, the panelists agree that a combination of education and workplace policy is the way to create an environment where workers might feel comfortable to speak up for themselves and their colleagues.
“Line managers need to be upskilled in not just how to recognize instances of microaggressions, but what they do once they see it,” says Folarin.
While microaggressions may appear to be an unfortunate side effect of a diverse workforce, their socio-political impacts run deep and the long-term impact of microaggressions on workers’ wellbeing can be severe. Companies have a duty of care to look after the mental and physical care of their workers through the implementation of considered and robust workplace policy, training and education, and should duly consider how they intend to handle the issue of microaggressions in the workplace in the future.