Leaders need to educate themselves and their teams on how microaggressions manifest themselves in the workforce and why they are so harmful, says Yetunde Hofmann
According to research, more than 50% of Black workers experience microaggressions at work. They are what the Oxford dictionary describe as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group such as a racial or ethnic minority.” I would call them PARS, presumably acceptable racial slurs. Comments that are said without much thought on how they can affect another human being. You’ll likely know the ‘sticks and stones’ saying, but it doesn’t hold true; words matter – and they can do more harm than you realise.
One common example is the question of ‘where are really you from?’. Rather than accepting your first and correct answer, this statement is often repeated until the recipient has whittled your identity down and made you feel like an outsider.
Microaggressions can manifest in a range of ways, from insults that undermine the recipient, assaults that deliberately use abusive language, to invalidations that are often met with a blasé response of ‘I’m sure they didn’t mean it’. But one of the most insidious things is that they’re not always obvious. It could be a derogatory comment about someone’s accent or personality that’s passed off as ‘banter’ or a request from a colleague to use a nickname instead of your full name because it’s deemed too difficult to pronounce.
One common example is the question of ‘where are really you from?’. Rather than accepting your first and correct answer, this statement is often repeated until the recipient has whittled your identity down and made you feel like an outsider. Similarly, comments based on stereotypes and the misconception that you don’t sound or act like you’re supposed to can add to an us-and-them environment.
Non-verbal behaviours can also be classified as microaggressions in the workplace and society as a whole. For non-white individuals, the experience of being questioned or followed when you go into a shop isn’t new, as is the drawing together of groups when you walk past. Whether or not these actions are performed with malice, the impact remains the same. It’s an othering, an expectation that you are a risk or a danger, drawing on the unconscious biases and prejudices that we all have and impact those in the minority the most.
Over the last month, you’ve likely seen the news story and video clips of the young Black child who was passed over by the official handing out medals in the Irish gymnastics’ competition. Think about what that moment must have felt like for her. How isolating it is to know you have done nothing wrong, but that you are being treated differently. And in the subsequent weeks, with the excuses that have come out as an explanation and an apparent lack of urgency to address this situation, it shows that how little we understand about how these behaviours affect those bearing the brunt of them as a society.
Black women are frequently on the receiving end of these harmful comments and stereotypes. Whether it’s her appearance, gender or personality, everything can come under attack – and the impact on a person’s sense of identity and confidence can be devastating. It’s something I’ve experienced on a personal level, where being told that some of my stakeholders found me “scary” when being given feedback. Such a comment isn’t helpful, constructive, or supportive. It’s belittling, and being on the receiving end of such feedback continuously can lead you to feel the need to tone down your personality to avoid the criticism. It’s believed that 98% of Black Brits have to compromise who they are at work. Just imagine what we could achieve if we were allowing people to be their true selves, instead of feeling they must hide who they are.
It’s clear that despite the name, the impact of these comments and behaviours is far from micro. In fact, I believe we should change the name to reflect the huge impact they can have on an individual’s sense of identity and mental health. These are not microaggressions, they are aggressions. When a person is afraid of being authentically themselves at work, self-doubt can creep in and make us question whether we belong at all. Our engagement falls, and this decline can have a considerable effect on a team’s dynamics and an organisation’s inclusion agenda, innovation and retention levels.
We must adopt a zero-tolerance approach and speak up about the presence and impact of these types of behaviours, regardless of who, where and when they happen.
To tackle this issue, business leaders must commit to educating themselves and their teams on how microaggressions manifest and are exhibited in their organisation. With this understanding, we can empower our people to see the impact of their words and call out harmful actions, whether it’s a colleague or their boss who is responsible for them. Creating a culture based on love which amplifies the voice of its diverse talent, and where employees stand with their colleagues as allies to confront the aggressor, is one that will see the benefits in their commercial and people KPIs – now and in the future.
We cannot afford to stand on the sidelines and let these microaggressions continue to have a huge impact on our workplaces and communities. We must adopt a zero-tolerance approach and speak up about the presence and impact of these types of behaviours, regardless of who, where and when they happen. Together, change can happen – but what it required is a genuine desire to see and experience change for the good and love of, and for, one and all. That’s how we’ll have a macro-impact.
About the author
Yetunde Hofmann is a portfolio non-executive director; a board level leadership coach and mentor; global change and inclusion advisor; author of Beyond Engagement; and founder of the Solaris Executive Leadership Development Academy – a leadership academy for Black women leaders.