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How to Tackle Microaggressions in the Digital Workplace

January 06, 2022 Leadership
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

A positive work environment, whether in office, remote or hybrid, yields benefits for leaders who champion the culture and employees who engage with it. By the same token, a negative work environment can reduce productivity and alienate employees. Microaggressions are one factor that fosters a negative work environment.

But what exactly are microaggressions and what role do they play in the digital workplace? Here's an explanation and steps managers can take to identify them and prevent them from creating a negative workplace environment.

What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are indirect or unintentional remarks often perceived as racist, sexist, ageist or generally offensive. As the push for a more inclusive workplace intensifies, the potential for microaggressions to surface is a growing concern for organizations, especially as they move from in-office work to a variety of working environments.

Jesse Thé, CEO of Netherlands-based communication platform Tauria, defines a microaggression as an “act of discrimination that is not easy to be noticed.” On the surface there is little or no aggressiveness in microaggressions, he said, but they tend to manifest through more subtle cues, such as the words used or body language.

For Tudor Armand Ciuleanu, founder and CEO of Romanian UX/UI software development company RebelDot, microaggressions are “small reactions or comments that show how someone may feel," he said. He notes a microaggression does not need to be discriminatory to qualify as such. For instance, a snarky response might indicate the person is in a bad mood, which, in his view, is a form of microaggression.

Related Article: Embrace Diversity and Inclusion for an Improved Employee Experience

Examples of Common Microaggressions

Microaggressions can take several forms. Here are three of the most common ones found in the workplace, some of which look different in the remote and digital workplace.

Not Acknowledging Emotions

“A microaggression is often used to address somebody’s emotions instead of validating them,” said Ewelina Melon, head of people and culture at live chat and chatbot solutions company Tidio. For example, an individual may ask a colleague why he or she is getting angry if they show any sign of frustration.

“When someone is simply trying to explain their point of view, it suggests that some people are not seen as having the right to feel anger, frustration or disappointment,” she said. Examples of such microagressions in the digital workplace can include emojis, "likes" or comments on a post, or snarky reactions during video calls.

Gender Microaggressions

Another common type of microaggression is gender-based. This typically takes the form of discrimination, albeit in a subtler manner and at times inadvertently by the individual. Using phrases like “boys will be boys” or implementing different rules for women and men are common gender-based microaggressions.

Racial Microaggressions

According to Thé, racial discrimination in the workplace most often appears in the form of superficial compliments. This can be asking about a person's origin, “complimenting” their ability to speak English or making proper pronunciation of their name a chore.

Related Article: How to Interrupt Bias in Your Company

Tips for Handling Microaggressions

Of course, microaggressions can take on forms other than the ones above. Leaders should make sure they have a plan to recognize and manage potential microaggressions when they surface to protect the company culture. Here are some tips:

Notice When They Happen

The first and essential step to combat workplace microaggressions is to notice them, Melon said. "While they might look very casual, it’s crucial to spot them when they make someone feel uncomfortable," she said. "Leaders are the ones who decide what behaviors are rewarded and what are frowned upon."

Paying attention to how coworkers interact and the reactions certain comments trigger can shed light on the severity of the situation and open a window to the workplace culture.

Tackle Microaggresions as They Happen

“If you notice them happening often and regularly, I would approach the subject head-on,” said Ciuleanu. This could mean discussing the microaggression with the parties involved if needed, or separately for more candid feedback.

Gather Feedback

Don't keep the matter isolated. A good way to help prevent microaggressions is to speak frankly and openly with employees at every level of the company. Leaders should encourage two-way communications about these issues to nurture a level playing field. This is especially true in the digital workplace when employees aren't able to see each other face to face.

Set Guidelines

Managing microaggressions starts with having the right company culture in place. Part of that is establishing what is appropriate in the workplace and what isn’t.  

Consult a Professional

In some cases, it may be necessary to speak to a professional about handling microaggressions. Melon suggested inviting a licensed professional to talk to employees and managers about how to recognize and eliminate microaggressions in their communications if it's an ongoing or epidemic problem.

Microaggressions can take many forms, but regardless of how they manifest, they negatively affect employee morale. Recognizing when they occur and having the tools to manage them can help ensure that a company's culture remains positive and inclusive.

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