How to Recognize and Avoid Microaggression in Civilian Workplaces

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Microaggressions in the workplace

Question: My manager just pulled me aside and said if I joked with my colleague about his name again, she'd send me to HR. My manager said my actions constituted a "microaggression." What is that and what did I do wrong? I thought I was being funny.

Answer: Microaggressions represent a persistent annoying behavior that keeps happening to the point where the recipient is exhausted, irritated, frustrated and begins to withdraw. The subject of the microaggressions might begin to feel persecuted, singled out and experience undue stress at work, which is supposed to be a place of safety and belonging.

What Are Microaggressions?

The term "microaggression" has become a focus of companies concerned with increased attention to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines microaggression as "a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)." With or without realizing it, the aggressor makes the subject of the microaggression feel less than through teasing, jokes, comments or behaviors that are discriminatory. These behaviors are called microaggressions (rather than aggressions), because we often don't mean to be harmful and may not even realize we're offending someone.

Examples of Microaggression

• Assuming a woman you encounter is a secretary or assistant rather than a CEO.

• Asking someone who appears non-white where they are "really" from (implying they couldn't be born here).

• Avoiding riding in an elevator with someone because of their appearance (i.e., race, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, etc.)

• Expressing surprise when someone of a minority background or who is young or underprivileged is well-spoken.

The lasting damage done to people who face these "micro" assaults on a daily basis is cumulative. It makes the workplace an unpleasant and difficult place to be, can damage client relationships permanently and harms the company's attempts to be inclusive and shuts down discussions, often making meetings hostile environments.

How to Avoid Microaggressions

It's most important to educate yourself. Read up on microaggressions and how they make others feel. Read examples and ask yourself whether you might be exhibiting similar behavior.

If you've been accused of a microaggression at work, follow these best practices:

  • Resist letting your embarrassment and frustration prevent you from learning and making the same mistake again. Express remorse and ask the other person how your actions made them feel. Listen and learn from their experience.
  • Avoid shifting the focus to yourself. When you've made a mistake, own it and listen. Resist the temptation to tell the person why you said what you said, or that you only were trying to be playful.
  • Sincerely, patiently and completely apologize. You don't have to agree with what the other person experienced. It was their experience, caused by your actions. Apologize completely and genuinely.
  • Take personal accountability to learn. Share with the person that you've heard them, understand their concerns and will learn how to better your communication to avoid this in the future. Don't shift blame to them. Own accountability.
  • Become an ally in the workplace. if someone calls out a microaggression, be supportive, be brave and be the one to call out others in a constructive but serious way. Don't join in when someone is being ignorant.

To be on the receiving end of a microaggression can be emotionally and spiritually devastating. While your comments and actions weren't meant to hurt someone, if they did, it's your responsibility to address it and show your colleague and employer that you won't repeat that behavior.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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