Gaffe or not, inappropriate comments can haunt the workplace

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If your workplace is typical, whether it’s virtual or on-site, so-called “microaggressions” are occurring all around you. According to Columbia University professor Derald W. Sue, microaggressions are “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”

We’re not talking about outright racism, sexual harassment, discrimination, sexism, homophobia or other assaults that might be against the law or company policy — this is something more subtle.

For example, a manager might think that he or she is doing a single-mother staffer a favor by leaving her out of early morning meetings and withholding challenging projects so that she has more time to spend with her kids. However, this employee might conclude that, from management’s point of view, she’s reached the height of her potential.

“Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional,” said Dr. Gina C. Torino, an associate professor at SUNY Empire State College. A microaggressor can genuinely believe that they are paying a black software developer a compliment by praising him or her for “being so articulate.” Meanwhile, the coder might be frustrated by the fact that he or she is not being evaluated as an accomplished, well-educated professional.

Dr. Veronica Johnson, an assistant professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that employees of Asian descent sometimes have to field questions like “Where are you from?” in professional settings. If they answer, say, “San Francisco,” they might be asked again: “No, where are you really from?”

While the individual posing the questions may be genuinely trying to engage in a ‘getting to know you’ conversation, the Asian colleague, perhaps a second- or third-generation American, might have been made to feel different, or like they don’t belong.

One of the difficulties with microaggressions is that sometimes they’re well-intended.

A microagression can potentially lead to employees feeling increased stress and impact their performance at work.
A microagression can potentially lead to employees feeling increased stress and impact their performance at work.
Shuttestock

Take, for example, your boss who calls you “kiddo.” While it might have been OK when you were 22 years old and new with the firm, when you’re 30 and giving a presentation to upper management, it doesn’t serve you.

“The intent behind the co-worker’s behavior and the impact it has may be very different,” said Torino.

Microaggressions can also be ambiguous. Torino cited an example of a supervisor texting on their phone while a black woman presented a project over Zoom. The woman doesn’t know if her boss has an emergency or if they feel she has nothing worthwhile to say.

Now, if these kinds of aggressions were a one-and-done, it would be one thing, but research shows that they tend to pile up. Experts say that individuals, employers and even society at large may suffer as a result.

“Continuous microaggressions can lead to depression, anxiety, race-based traumatic stress, sleep disturbances, suicidal ideation and more,” said Torino, adding that employers can suffer from a “decrease in employee job satisfaction which in turn leads to less organizational commitment and increased attrition.”

One way to deal with microagressions is the have an honest conversation with your colleague.
One way to deal with microagressions is the have an honest conversation with your colleague.
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While this is the bad news, experts believe that we can do better by learning to identify, talk about, deal with and apologize for our gaffs. “We are, for the most part, good people not intending to be hurtful,” said Johnson.

How should you deal with a microaggressor?

Take this example from “The Office.” While leading a sensitivity training session, Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) says: “The most fundamental thing about sensitivity training is that you cannot make fun of a person for something or some action that they have no control over. You can only make fun of things that they have control over. Like Oscar is gay. That is his choice.”

The way to deal with this would be to “bring [Scott] into the conversation about what just happened, instead of getting angry and calling him out,” said Dr. Michael Baran, an author, social scientist and senior partner and digital solutions lead at inQUEST Consulting. He recommended using a script like: “Hey Michael, it’s pretty well-known that being gay isn’t a choice. It hurts me that you said that.”

The hope is that Scott will say, “Tell me more about how you feel,” and a conversation begins.

It’s rare to find a microaggression expert who doesn’t talk about men speaking over women in meetings and even taking credit for their ideas. There are plenty of ways to handle this, including saying something like, “Excuse me, may I finish?” However, it’s even better if a third party enters the conversation and says something like, “I’m really interested in hearing the rest of what she has to say,” said Johnson.

Taking things lightly can also remove the sting. Imagine that you’re a second-generation American of Vietnamese descent. “When a new co-worker compliments you on your English, say something like, ‘Thanks, you speak good English too,’” said Johnson.

Humor is a great way — light and nonthreatening — to point it out. It calls attention to the microaggression without being aggressive.”

Most of us microaggress unintentionally, according to the experts, so apologize once you recognize it or when it’s pointed out to you.

“Listen to and acknowledge what the person has to say, but don’t be defensive,” said Johnson.

There’s no need to beat yourself up if you didn’t intend to be hurtful, either. “You can’t know everything about everyone, but you can be open-minded and learn,” said Baran.



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