You may or may not have heard of the term “microaggression” but you’ve probably, directly or indirectly, experienced it. A microaggression is a subtle slight or action that leaves people (from a minority group) feeling upset, offended or uncomfortable. Often, the person who’s delivered the insult might be unaware that they have caused offense.
This article will explore the concept of microaggression and look at its relevance to your dignity at work policies and diversity and inclusion training. Jaluch deliver a lot of D&I programmes (unconscious bias training too) but until now we have not included a section on microaggression. But the reality is, it’s a phrase we are hearing more and more often so, as we consider adding it into our training, is this a good opportunity for you to learn a bit more about it too?
What is Microaggression?
Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist, has defined it in a few different ways. Hopefully one of these will give you a good appreciation of what it is about:
“Brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”
“Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
The second definition isn’t as broad as the first, it only refers to microaggression in relation to colour or race, not to any of the other protected groups protected by the Equality Act 2010 (age, disability, religion or belief, marriage or civil partnership, gender, sexual orientation, transgender, pregnancy or maternity).
Microaggression is the opposite of Macro aggression which might be defined as large-scale or overt aggression toward those of a different race, culture, gender, etc.
If you have not heard the term microaggression, perhaps you have instead heard the term micro insult? These are subtle verbal and nonverbal communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.
This is defined as “A form of microaggression that excludes or negates a person’s thoughts or feelings.”
Two examples: “you’re being over sensitive, if you knew him better you would know that’s not what he meant” or “I’m a fair manager and treat everyone equally, so your interpretation of my behaviour is wrong.”
Who came up with the concept?
The focus purely on race and skin colour in the term microaggression originates from the early 1970’s use of the phrase which was coined by Profession Chester M Pierce when talking about the insults and slurs he regularly witnessed towards Black people (of which he was one) in the US. Pierce was a professor of education and psychiatry at Harvard.
What examples of it do we see in the workplace?
“Someone like you shouldn’t need training in this” – a supposedly humorous refusal of support or systems training requested by a young person. Based on the assumption that young people should have good and all-encompassing IT skills.
“Are you sure you want to apply for a marketing grad job, not finance?” – said to an Asian student on the assumption that a lot of Asian students are good at maths and apply for finance roles. Equally, that not many Asian students are expected to be creative or have the softer skills required for marketing.
“You’re being over sensitive” – said to a woman who complains of being treated like a second-class citizen.
“You need to speak up more” – said to an Asian woman (with an implication of criticism) whose cultural style may not encourage her to speak up in a meeting.
“Wow, you’ve got a master’s degree” – said to a black job applicant with the implication being that you did not expect them to have attained such a high level of education.
“I expect your priorities will change now, but I’ll support whatever you decide to do” – said to a woman at work by her manager before her wedding.
“But where are you really from?” said to a British person of African descent who said he is British when asked his nationality.
Can a business lose a claim for discrimination/harassment due to micro aggressive behaviours?
In a nutshell, yes!
If a member of staff makes even one comment that could be linked to a protected characteristic (age, disability, religion or belief, marriage or civil partnership, gender, sexual orientation, transgender, pregnancy or maternity), then the person it’s directed at may feel that they are being treated less favourably, that their dignity is being violated or that they are subjected to hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
If this is the case, then that individual could choose to make, and potentially win, a claim against the organisation … and possibly the individual who made the claim. It, therefore, would be risky to allow or tolerate such comments in your organisation.
Irrespective of how the comment was intended, it is how it’s perceived by the recipient that is important. One single comment could potentially be sufficient to allow an individual to win a claim of discrimination/harassment in a Tribunal.
What relevance for D&I policies including Dignity at Work?
Now we come to the crunch! You have learned more about it, but do you need to do anything about it?
Whilst microaggression is a term that is already being applied to workplace behaviours, plus now being subject to a fair amount of academic research, each workplace still needs to decide whether talking about microaggressions and including the concept in their D&I policies is an appropriate step forward.
There are many who argue that organisations have to do everything they can to eradicate all forms of harassment. Tackling microaggression is the next step in that process, after spending decades tackling overt aggression and discrimination. There are also legal reasons to tackle microaggression, which are set out above in the potential legal repercussions section.
It has been argued that talk of microaggression simply increases people’s sensitivity, in an already over sensitive world. As a result, it increases, rather than decreases, conflict in the workplace through informal complaints, grievances and, of course, tribunal claims. In other words, it encourages the ‘blame game’ which is not helpful to a successful team working environment.
People also suggest that microaggression encourages a belief that one group is always the aggressor and the other group, the victim. Particularly as its origins stem from the treatment of African Americans by White Americans. But most of us recognise that aggression and assumptions etc. often go both ways. We might be subjected to someone else’s biases or assumptions about us, but equally, we too, have biases and make assumptions about others. In the UK, the concept of inverse snobbery (you don’t want to aspire to being one of them, they don’t live in the real world) is as well-known as traditional snobbery (you don’t want to mix with people who are beneath you, do you?)
The middle ground…
The middle ground in this debate might to be include this as a topic within your D&I training in order to educate rather than legislate. If you roll out Unconscious Bias training too, then this topic fits very neatly into that, in a way that seeks to educate and encourage discussion, rather than apportion blame and identify transgressors.
If you want to make your mind up on this, read a couple of the articles attached to the bottom of this article.
Can Jaluch Support?
“I attended one of Jaluch’s seminars about unconscious bias and must admit I was blown away. The subject matter was very interesting, engaging and the links to the commercial world were eye opening. I attend many of these sorts of seminars and must say that Helen’s presentation style really stood out, she was brilliant. I would highly recommend attending one of these seminars if you get the chance.” Daniel Wale, Operations Manager, Jobshop UK
“I attended a diversity and inclusion seminar at which Helen did the key note speech. I found her an engaging speaker, thought provoking and also challenging. I found the part of her speech about unconscious bias fascinating and feel there is so much for all of us to learn about this. I really enjoyed the fact that Helen’s style was not overly formal and many of the stories she related clearly resonated with the audience.” Sergey Dvornikov, Wealth Management, Citi Bank
On the legal side, Jaluch can also support with Tribunal Claims brought against your organisation as well as grievances raised. Our HR consultants frequently carry out grievance and disciplinary investigations for clients and also support by chairing or note taking at formal meetings.
Why appoint an unknown face or someone who lacks experience of employee relations, when you can appoint a Jaluch consultant who will handle things fairly, with empathy but, with an eye on the cost too! Our hourly rates for investigations and support are significantly less than most lawyers and we have had tribunal judges praise our work.
Further Reading on Microaggression
The information contained within this article is for general guidance only and represents our understanding of employment and associated law and employee relations issues as at the date of publication. Jaluch Limited, or any of its directors or employees, cannot be held responsible for any action or inaction taken in reliance upon the contents. Specific advice should be sought on all individual matters.