You name your hometown and a supervisor asks where you’re “really” from. A coworker comments on your “crazy” hair. A client asks you to take notes in the meeting assuming you’re an assistant, despite the fact you’re in charge of the meeting.
Microaggressions at work are relatively brief, often subtle, behaviors of bias.
Experiencing bias in the workplace is hurtful, but the fact that microaggressions are often on the fly makes them particularly tough to deal with.
Am I overreacting? Will they think I’m too sensitive?
Just because microaggressions are by definition “small” doesn’t make them any less serious. Some experts believe they should be considered a public health issue as they have significant effects on job satisfaction, emotional, mental, and even physical well-being, not to mention the cognitive burden
Because they stem from bias, they are all too common. A recent survey from Deloitte found that 64% of full-time U.S. professionals experienced bias in the workplace in the previous 12 months, with 83% indicating that it was subtle or indirect.
So if you’ve encountered microaggression at work, you are definitely not alone.
Across thousands of conversations, we’ve supported people feeling stuck or uncertain in dealing with microaggressions from coworkers, managers, customers, clients and more.
As hard as they are, the good news? There are some strategies to cope and the weight doesn’t have to be entirely on you.
What are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions are subtle, often brief, intentional or unintentional behaviors that show bias toward members of historically marginalized groups. They are actions or comments that have an “othering” effect.
Here’s a short list of what microaggressions look like:
- A new coworker assumes a Black employee is not in a senior role.
- “You people…”
- Jokes about a racial group, sexual orientation, or gender.
- A supervisor calling an employee “honey” or “sweetheart.”
- Comments about someone’s appearance or physical traits.
- Mistaking members of the same ethnic group for each other.
Here are examples we’ve heard from people who connect with us:
- “One colleague literally rolls their eyes at me when I talk at meetings.”
- “My boss told my white colleague that I had slave braids in my hair”
- “I am from Ethiopia, I have accents when I speak. They make a joke on that.”
- “He cracked that we might need a babysitter [because women are babies].”
- “My manager talks really slowly to me like I don’t understand what’s going on. I’m not deaf, I just learn differently.”
- “One time the white CEO said in front of me and my two Black colleagues that she identified with the 3/5 compromise. I couldn’t believe they said that. And like, laughed.”
Over time, experiencing microaggressions on a regular basis can feel like “death by a thousand cuts,” according to psychologist Keven Nadal. They perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia. Yet, because microaggressions often exist in a gray area of “one-offs” or “jokes”, figuring out what to do about them isn’t always straightforward and can add even more stress to the situation.
Some employees may feel compelled to address the issue directly with the person, with management, or file a complaint, others may not. What to do is personal and depends on what you feel comfortable with. Here are some strategies that can help think through what you might want to do.
Ways to Cope with Microaggressions at Work
Since microaggressions come in a wide variety of forms, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to responding to them. Your comfort may depend on how supported you feel overall in your workplace.
For many, it can feel like the only possible response to microaggressions in the workplace is to shake them off and keep going. We hear from people regularly who share, ““I feel like anything I do will not change their behavior and a manager needs to step in.” Or, “I’ve been told to “work it out with them directly.”
Before you decide on the approach that feels best for you, here are some steps you may want to take:
- Identify. Recognize the microaggression. If a comment or behavior feels off to you, trust that. You know yourself, and your situation. Your gut response indicates something isn’t right.
- Document. Microaggressions are often recurrent behaviors. Focus on patterns and try to document each occurrence with specifics whether on a note to yourself, in an email with a timestamp, or another format.
- Talk to your coworkers. If you feel comfortable sharing your concerns with your coworkers, it might might provide validation and may be a source of support and allyship.
- Weigh the goals and consequences. Everyone’s situation is different. Your workplace comfort, financial security, family needs, and relationship with the person behind the microaggressions all naturally affect how you might choose to respond. Dr. Kevin Nadal, a microaggressions expert, includes some questions you can ask yourself in his Guide to Responding to Microaggressions.
- Get the support you need. Whether it’s a coworker, family member, partner, or friend, try to connect with someone who can understand your situation and offer support. You don’t have to carry the burden of addressing it alone.
Everyone deserves to work in an environment free from bias and negative behaviors.
What options feel right for you? What would make you feel more supported, respected, and valued in your workplace?
If, as you’ve reviewed this, you’re not sure what you’d want to do, a trained peer counselor is just a text away. It’s free and confidential: 510-674-1414.
In thousands of conversations, Empower Work has given workers a space to feel heard and supported as they navigate complicated issues in the workplace.
This post originally appeared on Empower Work’s website.