In her article, Diversity Fatigue – What it is and Why it Matters, Valorie Walden, Director of Integrated Human Capital Services, defines microaggressions as “those daily verbal or behavioral indignities that communicate derogatory or negative prejudicial insults toward another. They can be intentional or unintentional, and they are a big deal, although often overlooked as harmless.” Microaggression often takes the form of a combination of body language and verbal remarks; the sum of the parts makes a powerful impact experienced and interpreted differently by others. The impact and response will vary by individual; what is harmless to one person is harmful to another. Often, a nuance changes the meaning; an eye roll, facial expression, or tone of voice may completely negate an otherwise positive statement. Such communication nuances may make it challenging to identify and address microaggressions when they are not blatantly harmful.
Creating a workplace atmosphere that is authentically tolerant and inclusive means holding individuals accountable for their words, actions, and behaviors that occur daily. Policies, goals, and training are a start, but not enough. It is the daily conversations and interactions in the workplace between employees, customers, vendors, and others, that also require attention. These interactions can make employees feel unwelcome, undermine trust, and harm workplace relationships when microaggressions occur; thus, understanding and combatting microaggressions is an important part of a successful DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) strategy.
To productively counter microaggression, a study published in American Psychologist finds that micro interventions are effective and provide very specific guidance for individuals when they experience interactions that are hurtful to themselves personally and/or to others. These micro interventions are straightforward conversations and behavioral responses that occur in the moment when a microaggression occurs. This requires a degree of confidence and a willingness to experience discomfort; objecting to what someone else does or says, especially if they are a co-worker, is never easy. Importantly, bystanders have a crucial role and responsibility to engage in addressing harm they observe. The study focuses on racial microaggressions; however, the study clarifies the framework may be applied to harmful behaviors prompted by other characteristics such as gender, disability, religion, etc.
The study describes these four micro intervention strategies:
- Make the “Invisible” Visible
- Harmful words or actions cannot be ignored; they must be surfaced and exposed in order to be addressed productively.
- Example: When a bystander observes a microaggression against a colleague, they must speak up or visibly react to “name” the hurtful incident. This alerts all people who are present to what just happened, that it was unacceptable, and you object.
- Disarm the Microaggression/ Macroaggression
- This is a direct intervention that may cause discomfort. Clear, straightforward language challenges the words/ actions taken; body language is used to send the message, “What just happened is not alright!”
- Example: “Ouch!” or “Excuse me, but what you just said was offensive.”
- Educate the Offender
- This important step reveals the need to inform and build relationships, not punish or “cancel” others who may have unintentionally hurt others with their behaviors.
- Example: “I appreciate you as a co-worker, and I believe you did not wish to harm anyone. I am not sure you are aware of how your words/ actions were hurtful and disrespectful. Sometimes co-workers say things that are hurtful to others, and they don’t even know it! In our workplace, we value all employees and care about the relationships between all employees. It is important to be aware of how our choice of words and actions impact others and make different choices when they cause harm or are disrespectful.”
- Seek External Intervention
- Victims of microaggressions need healing, and bystanders often need support from higher levels of authority in the workplace.
- Example: If a bystander speaks out to their supervisor about hurtful words and behaviors in the workplace, they are ignored or retaliated against; they should seek HR support if conditions do not improve or worsen.
Micro interventions connect individuals with the impact of their words and actions on others, builds personal accountability, and offer an opportunity for personal growth. Consequently, boosting self-awareness in a meaningful way that goes beyond simply complying with policies and expectations. The study asserts that these micro interventions’ cumulative ripple effect may have a macro impact of meaningfully aligning everyone with a vision of workplace equality and equity for all. This study is worth reviewing for additional useful details, charts with practical tips, and actionable guidance to improve workplace interactions that support DEI initiatives.
Employers Council is committed to providing ongoing guidance and support for members seeking to pursue an effective DEI strategy to create a high-performing workplace for all. To learn more, visit the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace page on the Member Portal, contact our Integrated Human Capital Services team, and browse these articles as a primer: