26% of employees have been on the receiving end of a microaggression at work
When Angela Champ was pregnant, she’d have to constantly ask people not to touch her stomach.
“It was the weirdest thing. Everyone just assumes it’s fine to touch your baby bump – but it’s sort of an invasion of personal space. In the end, I would touch their stomach in return – which freaked them out a bit.”
While it may not seem obvious, issues like unwanted touching, making bland assumptions and asking “so where are you originally from?” are all examples of toxic microaggressions. And they’re on the rise. According to data from SurveyMonkey, 26% of employees have been on the receiving end of a microaggression at work – and 36% of workers have witnessed one in their workplace.
Spotting a microaggression
“They come in all forms,” says Champ, SVP of HR at Alpine Building Maintenance. “It could be questions around somebody's race, maybe commenting on their looks or touching their hair. Early in my career, I worked as a claims adjuster – and because I was the only women in the area, everyone who walked in the door assumed I was the receptionist. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a receptionist, it’s just the assumption that’s dangerous.”
The current political and economic climate, rising tensions around inflation and a disturbing cost-of-living crisis is leading to tension. And in moments of tension, people tend to say the wrong thing. Microaggressions can seemingly come from nowhere – but what makes them all the more dangerous is how people react when they’re called out on them.
Calling out bad behaviour (with compassion)
“You have to be careful when addressing microaggressions,” says Champ. “Telling someone something they said isn’t appropriate can be embarrassing for them, and they may overreact as a result. If you do spot a microaggression, take the person to the side and explain in a compassionate and calm manner that what they said isn’t okay in the workplace. If they begin to get defensive, diffuse the situation and walk away. Don’t engage in arguments.”
For HR leaders, the issue is more complex. Employers have a duty to provide a safe working environment – and that includes stamping out harassment and bullying. Before you instigate a conversation, Champ recommends examining your relationship with them.
“How do you know the employee? Do you have the kind of relationship where you can be blunt? Can you say “when you said this, this is how it landed - I'm sure you didn't mean it this way, but maybe be more careful in the future”? For example, an older male employee calling the women in the office “girls”. They my not think they’re being offensive – they may think they’re being endearing and would probably be mortified if they knew - so make sure you approach the conversation with grace.”
Even if you do everything right, and you’re kind and respectful, you may still irk the employee in question. Be prepared to be called “overly sensitive” or “too woke” if you bring the issue up – however, don’t let this discourage you. In HR, you need to have the awkward conversations -otherwise nothing will change. For Champ, she likes to think of developing emotional intelligence as a means of stamping out bad behaviour.
“Emotional intelligence is like a muscle,” she says. “If you do 100 push ups a day, you’ll gain strength – but if you drop off and stop working out then the muscle will deplete. Emotional intelligence is the same thing. You can have high EI, but if you're not practicing it and strengthening that muscle all the time, it’ll get flabby.”
Are microaggressions illegal in Canada?
With the issue on the rise, employers are increasingly turning to lawyers to help shed light on their workplace duties. As with any form of harassment, it’s blatantly illegal in Canada – and if you’re not seen to be dealing with it correctly, it could have huge (and costly) repercussions.
“We are of course getting more and more requests from clients for advice on how to deal with complaints of microaggressions,” says Mike MacLellan, partner at Crawford, Chondon and Partners. “Generally speaking, a microaggression can be considered a commonplace verbal, behavioural, or environmental slight or indignity, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.
“Workplace harassment does not need to be intentional, but a single incident will only constitute workplace harassment if it is significantly serious. A single microaggression likely will not constitute workplace harassment. However, when microaggressions go unchecked, they have a ‘macro’ effect on the recipient.”