An older colleague mentions to a younger co-worker that she is very hardworking for her age. A young person asks an older person if he needs some help with navigating his new phone. A client emails a senior manager, addressing her by her name but sends the same e-mail to her junior male colleague, addressing him as ‘sir’, thus assuming he is the boss. In a meeting, the male co-worker is assumed to be in a senior position rather than his female colleague. A person hailing from a remote town is complimented for speaking perfect Hindi or English.
“The challenge of inclusion is not demonstration, but the fact that people may not be aware of what is right.”
On the face of it, these may appear to be ordinary incidents, but there is something very specific happening here. These are instances that reveal people’s intrinsic biases in a way that leaves their listeners feeling uncomfortable or insulted. These are examples of microaggression.
It is easy to assume that people claiming to be victims of microaggression are simply being oversensitive. On the contrary, these are just few examples of daily indignities that people face. In a society where overt biases are frowned upon even while implicit biases run strong, we probably need to be more aware. To be realistic, microaggressions are going to be with us for some time and it is better to be aware of them now.
What makes microaggressions more than generalised insults or insensitive comments, is that they are directed at an individual’s membership to a group that is subject to certain stereotypes. The fact that they take place frequently and casually, without any intended harm on the speaker’s part, is rather disconcerting.
Left unchecked, these aggressions compound over time and can have adverse effects on employee experience, health and mental wellbeing.
How can microaggression be tackled at the workplace?
Tanvi Choksi, head-HR, JLL India, says that in such situations awareness is the key. “Change is possible with an acknowledgement that there are microaggressions,” states Choksi.
The key point to remember is that behind any comment, the intention is not to hurt the other person. Therefore, spreading awareness on the matter is of prime importance.
Lakshmanan M.T., CHRO, L&T Technology Services, says, “The challenge of inclusion is not demonstration, but the fact that people may not be aware of what is right.”
Organisations can work towards keeping macro-level microaggressions in check by consistently following up on two areas: training and re-evaluation of policies and procedures.
Training and workshops
Consistent training through sessions and workshops can help employees within the organisation understand better what makes certain people uncomfortable or offended. The trick is to always remember that the intent behind the action is not to offend. Hence, there needs to be a balanced approach behind explaining to an offender their actions, without seeming accusatory.
In this case, there may crop up claims that these actions are minor and can be overlooked; or that people are just being hypersensitive in these situations. To tackle this, role-playing exercises can be used to help drive the point home. For instance, a younger colleague can be paired with an older worker, where both exchange examples, which may be considered offensive or derogatory for each.
“Change is possible with an acknowledgement that there are microaggressions.”
Consistent re-evaluation of policies and procedures
While driving any major change within an organisation, consistency is the key to achieving it. To foster inclusivity through pay parity, an organisation has to consistently audit its pay structures to ensure that parity is maintained. Similarly, in the agenda of tackling microaggression in the workplace, consistent re-evaluation of certain policies and procedures is the key. It can be in simple areas, such as making sure that each person gets to put their views across in a group call or keeping in mind that the right kind of food is arranged for people with dietary restrictions in an office outing.
At the employee level, a way of approach can be making people more aware of themselves and their biases. In HR speak, this means using tools such as psychometric profiling, employing techniques to identify hidden biases and emphasising emotional intelligence among employees. Small discussions can be facilitated, where people can share information about their own backgrounds and interests, and thus, actively learn about each other.
Unbeknownst to organisations or offenders themselves, microaggression can have negative implications for employees at the workplace, in terms of experience and mental and physical wellbeing. While it may be over-aspiring to try and totally eradicate such aggressions, an attempt can certainly be made to reduce them. Open dialogue and communication is one of the best ways to do it.