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Impact trumps intent: microagressions in the workplace

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What are microaggressions?

It can be challenging to distinguish between overt racism and microagressions in businesses. Microaggressions are subtle acts that can be either deliberate or unintentional. Yet their significance lies beyond intent – they can have a huge impact on someone’s experience of work, whether they’re intentionally targeted or not. Microaggressions are instances that leave individuals feeling marginalised and uneasy, irrespective of their origin - be it a comment on appearance, language proficiency, hairstyle, or role. They all contribute alienating colleagues, which is why they need to be addressed.

The challenge with incidents of microaggression is that we are often unaware of them. What may seem a perfectly honest comment to one person may be a microaggression to another. This is why focusing on our intentions is not enough when tackling microaggressions: they often do not originate from ill intention.

How to deal with microaggressions

If microaggressions are not from a place of ill intention and are difficult to spot, how can we recognise and effectively deal with them? The most important first step is to start to normalise openness and transparency about discussing and sharing experiences of microaggressions. This means avoiding minimising or dismissing the experience. As we raise our awareness and increase our understanding of the range of microaggressions, we can identify when these take place, understand why it is experienced as a microaggression, avoid being a perpetrator of them ourselves and act as an ally to call out microaggressions when we see them.

I have experienced microaggression first-hand: when being introduced as a speaker to a large group of people, a comment was made about something I was wearing (this introduction and comment was made by a more senior male colleague). Drawing attention to what I was wearing as opposed to my experience, credentials or what I was there to speak about left me feeling reduced to my appearance, an experience that is all too common for women across many walks of life.

The impact of microaggressions

To tackle microaggressions, workplaces need to encourage a collective transformation in perspective, endorsing open communication, empathy, and attentiveness. By internalising the understanding that impact trumps intent, we move closer to cultivating environments that respect and honour everyone, unburdened by the weight of unconscious biases and alienating behaviours.

What is certain is that microaggression in the workplace, no matter how subtle, should not be simply accepted or overlooked, it should be called out and it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure this happens.

Dr Rebecca Jones

Professor in Coaching
Published 6 September 2023
Leading insights Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

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