How to prevent microaggressions in the virtual workplace

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When you’re striving to create an inclusive workplace, all employees must feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety. But this can easily be undermined by microaggressions.

Harvard Business Review defines microaggressions as “derogatory or negative slights and insults to the target person or group.”

What makes microaggressions especially insidious is that the person committing them often sees them as insignificant – a throwaway comment or thoughtless action. But people from underrepresented and marginalized groups can experience microaggressions every day in their personal and professional lives. And the effects of microaggressions add up over time. They can have a very real negative impact on an employee's experience, physical health and psychological wellbeing.

According to SurveyMonkey’s research, 68% of Americans say microaggressions are a serious problem. And microaggressions include more than racial slights. They can be put-downs that target women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and anyone from an underrepresented group. Jamie Adasi, Director of DE&I at Greenhouse, says, “Whether they’re intentional or unintentional, microaggressions can have a lasting impact on employee morale, retention and turnover.”

Jamie further explains, “The impact of microaggressions can often be subtle. A leader may begin noticing that employees from underrepresented backgrounds are leaving in larger numbers, or that engagement and inclusion metrics are consistently lower for historically marginalized groups. When employees do bring microaggressions to a leader’s attention, how that person or an HR professional handles the claims says a lot about how a company demonstrates its commitments to racial equity, social justice and an organization’s ever-growing DE&I needs.”

While many companies have largely moved to a virtual work setting, microaggressions persist. As Fast Company puts it, “The COVID-19 pandemic has opened much of our workforce to a new surge of microaggressions by making coworkers as unwelcome guests in their homes through video meetings.”

Until the underlying biases that lead to microaggressions are addressed, they will continue to exist. This is why leaders must take a proactive role in preventing and combating the biases that can lead to harmful microaggressions.

Understanding the different ways microaggressions can manifest

Columbia professor Derald Wing Sue identified three types of microaggression: microassault, microinsult and microinvalidation. A microassault is an explicit verbal or nonverbal action “meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior or purposeful discriminatory actions.” This is the most obvious type of microaggression and might involve using a racial slur or refusing to work with someone because of their race or another characteristic.

A microinsult is a subtle snub that demeans a person’s heritage or identity. It might involve telling a joke about someone’s ethnicity or a manager giving preferential treatment to certain employees.

And a microinvalidation excludes or negates the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the marginalized individual. This could include telling a person that they’re taking a joke “the wrong way” or being overly sensitive when they bring attention to a situation that made them uncomfortable.

All types of microaggression can occur in a virtual setting, whether it’s a comment about someone’s appearance on a video call (“Oh, you’re wearing your natural hair these days!”), a manager who is hypervigilant only with specific individuals because of biased assumptions that those employees aren’t working as much as their peers or exclusionary discussions that occur in echo chambers like private Slack channels.

Jamie points out several examples of microaggressions that are more likely to occur in a virtual setting, including:

  • Leaders or people in power becoming agitated when employees don’t want to be on camera. They see this as a sign of disengagement when in fact the employees are trying to protect their space and personal living situation.
  • Making comments about someone’s at-home workspace in a negative or surprised/shocked manner.
  • Insensitive comments made on company chat forums about specific underrepresented groups of people.
  • Mistaking one BIPOC (Black, Indigenous or Person of Color) employee for another BIPOC employee when addressing someone on a video call.
  • Leaders witnessing and not addressing microaggressions head-on when they occur.
  • Not recognizing different ability levels and multiple learning styles in the way virtual meetings or working sessions are run. Introverts and people with different learning styles may require more of a heads up on agenda items and topics to process copious amounts of information by video.


Creating a plan of action to address bias and microaggressions

Because microaggressions are tied to bias, you’ll want to think about how you can address both the cause and effect. It’s not enough to just respond to microaggressions when they occur – you’ll also want to help educate your employees to prevent them in the first place. It’s also important to consider your plan for people on both sides of the microaggressions – those who are making the gestures or comments and those who are experiencing them. Since one of the main types of microaggression involves negating the feelings of others, it’s essential to help employees accept the role they have in causing microaggressions even if that’s not their intention.

Leaders can help prevent bias and microaggressions by first addressing and raising awareness about their own journey and behaviors around microaggressive incidents. Jamie says, “At Greenhouse, we hosted an International Women’s Day panel and talked extensively about concepts like microaggressions, intersectional bias and imposter syndrome. Part of doing this was not only to have some of our female leaders of color share, but to also help others understand how microaggressive behaviors can show up across all levels of an organization.”

Jamie also recommends remembering the concept of immediacy. “There may be times where we witness some microaggressive behavior, or we exhibit microaggressive behavior and you don’t address it right away. Instead of giving people time to create their own stories, do what is right by addressing mishaps as soon as possible.” You can gain more confidence in having uncomfortable conversations by forming a small, diverse coalition of peers that you can go to when you’ve messed up to ask for advice on your next steps. “This should be a group of trusted advisors who you know will hold you accountable,” says Jamie.

And when necessary, Jamie says, “Seek help from your HRBP when microaggressive behavior has gone too far and caused real trauma or harm to underrepresented groups of people.”

To help raise awareness and create an environment where people feel safe sharing their experiences with microaggressions, consider how you can commit to ongoing education. As the Co-Chair for Greenhouse’s inaugural DE&I Council Wayne Lorenzo Titus writes, “If companies want to be great places to work and attract exceptional talent, they need to systematically address their own biases, open up a transparent dialogue and commit to rigorous anti-racism institutionalization.”

Wayne suggests that casual gatherings for educational conversations can be effective, with a few caveats:

“Make sure there’s a general baseline in education about DE&I (what it is and why it’s important) before diving into nuanced topics. It is also a prerequisite that everyone involved feels safe enough to be vulnerable. You can enhance that safety with a basic framing of the issues to be covered, some resources to review ahead of time and a commitment to education throughout. Rarely are these discussions easy and they are often uncomfortable, but that is even more reason to set expectations and define communication norms.”

To create a truly inclusive work environment, leaders must recognize that bias and microaggressions will continue to occur as long as they go unchecked. This is why having a plan of action is so critical. Jamie says, “When microaggressive behavior occurs, remember to reflect on what has occurred and make a conscious plan for how to ensure the behavior will not happen again. It’s not if you mess up, but when you mess up, so be ready to be vulnerable in either owning how you messed up or helping others to own how they messed up to help jump-start the healing journey.” This approach will help you show your employees that you truly value them and want to create a work environment where everyone can shine.

At Greenhouse, we believe that when people are heard, their voices can make a difference – and when people feel included, they bring their whole selves to their work. Learn more about our mission here.

Melissa Suzuno

Melissa Suzuno

is a freelance writer and former Content Marketing Manager at Greenhouse. Melissa previously built out the content marketing programs at Parklet (an onboarding and employee experience solution) and AfterCollege (a job search resource for recent grads), so she's made it a bit of a habit to help people get excited about and invested in their work. Find Melissa on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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