Most employers are aware that acts of unconcealed racism at work are unlawful, but perhaps a greater risk to their organisations are those less obvious, and sometimes unconscious, behaviours that may make the business environment discriminatory.
Microaggressions at work are a type of behaviour that can make an employee feel they do not belong or are not accepted in the workplace. Microaggressions can be defined as “the everyday verbal, non-verbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalised group membership.” The “micro,” refers to person-to-person interactions.
Examples of microaggressions at work
They may be very brief, verbal, or non-verbal communications, behavioural, or sometimes even unintentional acts from one employee towards another. Typically rooted in unconscious assumptions and stereotypes, often the perpetrator is unaware they have engaged in an exchange that could cause upset to the recipient.
A frequently occurring example is where a black or minority ethnic person is asked where they are from, and then questioned about their parent’s heritage, even if the initial answer is that they are British. Whilst this type of exchange could be considered as well-intentioned, it is also be classed as a microaggression. Other examples could include:
- To a black colleague, “your hair is amazing, can I touch it?”. “I’m not racist, I have loads of friends of colour.”
- To a black or minority ethnic person, “I didn’t expect you to have a British accent.”
- Gender stereotyping leads to other potentially discriminatory presumptions, such as: Women need protection. Referring to female colleagues with names such as “sweetheart” or “love”. Asking a female colleague to arrange teas, coffees, or other refreshments for a board meeting or assuming she is there to take the minutes. Referring to a nurse who happens to be a man as a “male nurse”. Referring to a woman who is a doctor as “female doctor”.
While these examples may not appear to be a direct or overt attack, all can indicate that the individual speaking has made an assumption and unconscious idea of who the other person should be or how they fit into their idea of it.
Consequences of microaggressions at work
Microaggressions at work can affect your business in several ways, by:
- Causing job seekers to hesitate to apply for vacancies within your organisation because of their belief that assumptions may be made about their name or ethnicity
- Impairing diversity within your organisation because you are struggling to attract or retain diverse employees
- Increasing mental health issues for employees suffering from adverse comments or behaviours
- Employees losing faith and trust in their employer understanding and respecting their basic needs, leading to a dip in workplace engagement
- Employees developing an unwillingness to speak up in meetings or take professional risks
- Employees losing motivation and sense of purpose, or doubting their abilities
Dealing with microaggressions at work
On the face of it, the comments may appear minor, but the net effect on the targeted employee(s) can, if not dealt with appropriately, be shattering and corrode the culture of the workplace.
As such, employers have a responsibility to confront and educate their employees about microaggressions at work and unconscious bias. They must ensure employees understand the full impact of such behaviour and the damage it causes. There has been some criticism that training on microaggression at work is unnecessary, but for those employers who recognise the damaging impact on their employees, there are a few places they can start:
- Create an internal discussion forum to find out and understand the opinions and feelings of any black or minority ethnic groups within your organisation
- Slowing down the process on recruitment and promotion to avoid snap decisions being made
- Anonymising CVs in the recruitment process
- Ensure that interview panels are diverse, and that selection is made based on aptitude and skills for the role in question
- Encouraging employees to speak out, and when they do take complaints or allegations about discriminatory behaviour seriously
- Sharing articles, research and commentary on diversity and inclusion, and how this has a positive impact on the workplace
- Calling out microaggression in the correct way. This could involve pointing out to the perpetrator the potential impact of their comments
- Undertaking an anonymous employee survey to find out how your staff members really feel about their working environment, and how inclusive it is
- Exit interviews and feedback forms are good ways to find out the employees’ personal experience of the workplace culture
- Making unconscious bias, conscious, through employee education and training
Unconscious bias is where social stereotypes outside an individual’s awareness affect their thought processes and decisions. This may also include something called “affinity bias”, where a person feels a connection with another because they have had similar life experiences. Affinity bias can lead to an applicant being favoured over others for job recruitment or promotion.
Confirmation bias happens where someone draws conclusions about another based on their own personal belief system and then looks for behaviours and traits during recruitment that “confirm” those biases.
Microaggressions & unlawful discrimination
The Equality Act 2010 protects individuals from direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and victimisation because of race. Microaggressions at work, perhaps in the form of “banter” and improper use of language, which result in a staff member feeling their work environment is hostile because of their race, can amount to subtle forms of harassment and bullying.
Essentially, if one employee discriminates against another, not only is the offending individual personally liable for their actions, you as their employer, may also be liable unless you have taken reasonable steps to prevent such conduct taking place. This is why it is so important to identify unconscious bias, and you should ensure that microaggressions at work are not played down and considered less serious than overt racism.
Diversity & inclusion policies
The way to tackle this particularly sensitive topic might be to include microaggression within your Diversity and Inclusion training. This has the advantage of educating employees, as opposed to legislating against breaches and sanctioning perpetrators. Rolling out training on unconscious bias fits very neatly with microaggression; when employees are educated, and discussion is encouraged, employers can minimise and identify transgressors.
Employers should encourage all their managers from the top down to be visible black and minority ethnic allies and call out any anti-racist or unacceptable behaviour when it occurs. They should also ensure the business has a zero-tolerance against prejudice and systems in place to address such behaviours.
Dignity at work
A dignity at work policy plays an important role in preventing employees from experiencing harassment and bullying in the workplace and ensures all members of staff are clear about what is and is not acceptable behaviour. The policy should apply to all members of staff, agency workers, contractors, associates, and anyone else engaged to work within the organisation. It should also set out, in detail, the behaviours that will not be tolerated, together with the reporting and investigation process, grievance procedures, and end with the way in which perpetrators will be dealt with and the sanctions to be applied. As with all policies of this nature, they should be reassessed and kept up-to-date on a regular basis.
Dignity at work is the principle of maintaining a safe, healthy, and enjoyable working environment. This ensures the following principles are met:
- The workplace is free from harassment, bullying, and victimisation
- All employees are considerate of one another and treat each other with respect
- Ensure unlawful discrimination in any guise is never experienced by any staff member
- The abilities and skills of all employees are championed and valued
Dignity at work policy considerations:
- Consider the type of working environment you want to create and set clear objectives as to how you expect your employees to meet them
- Cover all areas in terms of who the policy applies to, whose responsibility it is to enforce it, and why it is important
- Think about incorporating governing bodies’ principles and try to include them in your working culture and ethos
Employers’ failure to deal with microaggressions
It goes without saying that an employer should do all they can to try to prevent and stop bullying, harassment, discrimination, and victimisation in the workplace. These types of unfair treatment can be experienced in different ways, including unconscious bias and microaggressions at work. Depending on the type of treatment, it could be:
- A regular pattern of behaviour or a one-off incident
- Happen on social media, in emails, phone calls, or face-to-face
- Be written or spoken, graffiti, imagery, gestures, pranks, jokes or unwanted physical behaviour
- Happen at work social events or in the workplace
- Not always be obvious or noticed by others
These behaviours can amount to bullying, discrimination, harassment, or victimisation. An employer has a duty of care to look after the wellbeing of their employees. If they do not do this, and the employee feels they have no other option but to resign, the employer could face a claim of constructive dismissal.
Employers should look into any complaint fully, however if the matter has not been resolved appropriately, the employee may be able to make a claim to an employment tribunal. If this happens, the case will initially be referred to ACAS for “early conciliation”. This is a free service and is aimed to help all parties resolve the issues before a claim is issued.
If the matter cannot be resolved, and the employee makes a claim to an employment tribunal, it must be made within three months (less one day) from the date their employment ended. This is called “the limitation date”. The limitation date is automatically extended to give enough time for early conciliation to take place.
Tribunals can be notoriously expensive and long winded. If a tribunal case is lost, compensation will depend on the type of case. For example, an unfair dismissal claim has a maximum compensatory award of £86,444, but discrimination claims have unlimited compensation, not to mention legal costs on top of that.
It goes without saying, the easiest way to avoid employment tribunal costs is to avoid a claim in the first place. By taking steps to positively address and deal with microaggressions at work, employers can help eliminate the impact within their organisation. Education and training are a good starting point, but this should be underpinned by good HR policies that show a clear position against this type of behaviour, and how those engaging in it will be dealt with. There is a fine line between offence and innocence, and when each individual employee recognises that even the most innocuous comment can be damaging, your company will be on the right track.
DavidsonMorris’ human resource specialists support employers with all aspects of workforce management, engagement and culture. We provide guidance on developing and nurturing organisational and individual shifts towards more diverse, inclusive and equitable workforces and workplace cultures. For expert advice, contact us.
Microaggressions at work FAQs
What are microaggressions at work?
Microaggressions at work have been described as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to marginalised individuals and groups.”
What are examples of microaggressions at work?
Microaggressions come in three forms: micro-insults, micro-assaults, and micro-invalidations. Micro-insults are verbal and non-verbal behaviours demeaning a person’s race; micro-assaults happen when a person overtly behaves or speaks in a racist way; and micro-invalidations are an attempt to negate, exclude, or ignore a person based on their race or gender.
Why microaggressions are problematic in the workplace?
Ignoring microaggressions at work can cause companies to lose valuable and excellent employees, not only that but organisations can quickly gain a reputation for being unsupportive and lacking in diversity. This will have the effect of narrowing the talent pool for recruitment.
Last updated: 3 June 2021