“Death by a thousand cuts”: How to challenge a microaggression culture

Written by CMI Race Wednesday 10 March 2021
Two top experts tell us how you can recognise and challenge microaggressions in the workplace
Person holding their hand up in a 'stop' gesture

For employers and employees among us struggling to maintain a healthy work/life balance, remote working during the pandemic has created a petri-dish for microaggressions. Managers who relied on seeing their team at their desks are struggling with trust issues; employees finding it too difficult to focus during working hours aren’t perhaps being held to account; members of staff are sending work emails late into the night and expecting a quick response. For many, the benefits of remote working have been numerous, but for some organisations it has bred a culture of microaggressions.

According to Dr Jummy Okoya, associate programme leader for MSc human resource management at the University of East London and board member of CMI Women, differentiating between the three different types of microaggressions is a key to identifying the intention behind them. Let’s go through them now.

Types of microaggressions

  • Micro-assault: This is often an obvious form of microaggression, whereby the perpetrator intentionally behaves in a discriminatory or offensive way towards an individual or marginalised group, such as telling a racist joke and insisting, “it was just a joke”.
  • Micro-insult: This is usually a subtle act of discriminatory behaviour or comments against an individual or marginalised group by singling someone out to belittle or make them feel uncomfortable. For example, someone may comment inappropriately on a person's clothing choice or speak over them during meetings.
  • Micro-invalidation: This form of microaggression demeans or invalidates the experience of an individual or marginalised group. This could be by claiming “racism doesn't exist anymore” or “everyone is treated equally in this organisation”.

In a digital setting, microaggressions can occur over emails, online messaging platforms or video meetings. The perpetrator may frequently interrupt or speak over someone or disregard and/or ignore an individual's idea or views.

“It's the tiny little things that add up,” explained Advita Patel, board director for CIPR and founder of Comms Rebel, during a recent CMI webinar. “To use an analogy, it's like death from a thousand cuts. One papercut may not feel so bad, but after a thousand times, it will start to impact the way you live and breathe and how you feel about working in that organisation. Left unaddressed, microaggression can become normalised in workplace culture.”

So how should managers respond to and challenge microaggressions?

Jummy outlined four steps managers should take to challenge and respond to microaggressions in the workplace:

  • Respond: "Ignoring microaggression is a definite no-no," said Jummy. "Managers must respond, but they need to decide when." In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to respond immediately because the comment or behaviour will be fresh in everyone's mind. However, if it has provoked strong emotion, it may be best to wait until the initial emotion has simmered down before it’s addressed.
  • Discern: While it is important to challenge microaggression, it isn't always appropriate or necessary to pick up on everything, especially if the individual is displaying microaggression frequently. It's important to respond to inappropriate behaviour and call it out. Still, managers should discern first which particular behaviour to focus on as one situation may be more important – or serious – than another. Trying to tackle one problem at a time may be a more efficient way to deal with the problem than to try and change everything at once. You may also find that by responding to instances individually teaches the perpetrator to identify problem areas on their own.
  • Disarm: Call out the individual and challenge what they have said or done. The individual needs to understand the impact their behaviour has had. For Jummy, it's about being ready to have the conversation, however uncomfortable it may be. We spoke with Zaheer Ahmad MBE about how to facilitate difficult workplace discussions here.
  • Define: This is about getting to the bottom of the microaggression and asking questions to clarify and understand why the behaviour took place. 'Why did you say that?' or 'what did you mean by that?' or 'Why have you made that assumption?' The perpetrator may genuinely not know that what they were doing was a form of microaggression – they may have thought they were being helpful by sending frequent email reminders or checking in more. This exercise allows both parties to identify the underlying intent.

Dealing with microaggression from managers

In some circumstances, however, it may be the line manager themselves engaging in microaggression. As Advita pointed out, it would be difficult to call out this behaviour; there needs to be a culture of psychological safety for staff to feel safe enough to raise their concerns.

Organisations should have systems in place for staff to report anonymous concerns or complaints about workplace microaggressions. But for those that don't or for situations where organisations aren't taking grievances seriously, Advita advised building up data over a period of time and presenting it, along with real stories, to senior management. This is especially pertinent if the microaggressions are happening to multiple people; by collecting those stories and working together, you’ll have a strength in numbers to call out the behaviour.

"It takes a level of confidence to step into this space," Advita said. "So make sure you take hard data and evidence and go in with real stories along with the date the incidents happened and the impact it's been having."

Empowering employees to call it out

Ultimately, it's about fostering a culture that empowers employees to call out microaggression through policies and practices. Jummy recommended regular monitoring and measuring individuals' experience, especially those within marginalised groups or setting up an anonymous system whereby staff can send in reports about microaggression using an anonymous inbox without fear of it being traced back.

"Having a zero-tolerance policy can send a strong message to perpetrators," Jummy said.

And, as Advita warned, the consequence for organisations who fail to deal with grievances properly would cost them talent and reputation. "If these organisations don't catch up with what's going on around the globe, they will die out. The next generation just won't put up with microaggressions in the same way as previous generations have done," she said.

You can watch Advita and Jummy’s full discussion here.

CMI Race hosts monthly events based on the themes in Moving the Dial on Race: a practical guide to workplace inclusion, which can be viewed and shared from our community page.

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