Microaggressions: How can HR help to eradicate subtle acts of exclusion?

Don't let the name fool you; microaggressions can have a BIG impact on your workforce

Microaggressions: How can HR help to eradicate subtle acts of exclusion?

Has a colleague ever complimented you on how ‘articulate’ you are? Ever been asked where you’re ‘actually from’? Has a manager ever confused you with another colleague of similar race or sexual orientation? Well then you may have been a victim of a microaggression. Microaggressions are statements that are demeaning to other people – especially those who belong to a historically marginalized group – because the comments reduce an aspect of their identity or lived experience.  These remarks are often so commonplace that they’re barely detectable in everyday conversations – and their danger lies in their subtlety.

Why are these subtle comments so dangerous?

“Microaggressions, even when not intended, are often rooted in prejudice or bias,” says Tamisha Parris, founder of Parris Consulting and author of UKG’s new guide Microaggressions at Work. “Even though a person ´╗┐of a dominant group may have learned that racism is wrong, they may nevertheless have an unconscious sense of ´╗┐superiority or a sense that racialized groups are ‘other’ and therefore to be avoided.”

It’s this lack of understanding that goes with microaggressions that make them so toxic. 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. What’s more, one-quarter of employees would opt to leave their current company if they see a colleague commit microaggressive behaviour.

Impact on wellbeing

Perhaps the most disturbing impact of workplace microaggressions is their impact on individual mental wellbeing. While often symptomatic of more extensive, organization-wide issues, these kinds of comments and behaviours can diminish employee mental health. It’s well-known that an inclusive workplace is a happy, successful one – and that leadership teams that tolerate toxic and inappropriate behaviour routinely fall short of their competitors’ performance. Often leading to increased absences and a poor sense of self, microaggressions can poison company morale and cause an increase in voluntary turnover.

How can HR help?

HR has a duty to provide a safe environment at work, free from harassment. While many employers have made a more concerted effort to foster a culture of empathy and compassion during the pandemic, remote work has made it trickier than ever to spot microaggressions. With many employees now working from home, HR leaders need to constantly look out for any subtle yet excluding behaviour with people leaders and among teams. Warning signs that microaggressions are alive in your workplace include diminished productivity, increased absenteeism, a lack of contribution in video meetings or conference calls, and missed deadlines. 

If you’re worried about biases in your organization, start by having a conversation. Speak with your CEO, run some pulse surveys, host one-to-ones – and from there build a development plan to help educate employees and eradicate any issues at the source. To learn about how to address microaggressions in your organization, download UKG’s new guide here.

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