In our conversations around workplace culture, we often overlook the more minor things that end up having a long-term impact. The backhanded insults in the lunchroom, the pointed yet painful jokes “made in jest,” the smirks you notice, the faces they make—all those thousands of paper cuts. These acts are called Microaggressions.
Microaggressions — a term derived in the 1970s by American psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce is used to describe the put-downs and subtle insults experienced by the African American community. Today this term has expanded the conversation on race and describes the hostile behaviour experienced by people belonging to any marginalized community. People can be on the receiving end of microaggressions in a workplace because of their gender, religion, caste, race, disabilities, or sexual orientation. Microaggressions in the workplace take the form of verbal, non-verbal, or environmental insults and often contain a hidden message targeting an individual or a group of people.
While it is easy to identify an outright insult towards someone’s identity, a microaggression is often masked with jokes, backhanded compliments, or subtle behaviours that go unnoticed. Some examples include: laughing every time someone with the LGBTQ+ community talks about their partner, moving away from people eating their cultural meals that are different from yours, refusing to correct your pronunciation of someone’s name because you think it sounds complicated, or laughing at someone who the way they dress. Some communities face this at every point of the day, right from their interactions with people around them, in public spaces, and more importantly, at the workplace. Despite their subtle nature, microaggressions in the workplace have a significant impact on a person’s wellbeing. The constant reminders that they are unwelcome in a space and that their presence is a disturbance to the larger community can increase the sense of isolation a person feels.
Creating a safe and inclusive work environment is imperative to ensure a well-functioning organization. Microaggressions can negatively impact individual performance and team dynamics. Exclusion at the workplace can prove to be very harmful. Research shows that it also causes significant financial risk. High belonging is linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.
Interacting with people from a variety of communities at our workplaces can lead us to unconsciously displaying microaggressions. We may not always mean what we say or how we react to people, but our words and actions can impact them negatively. Coming from places of privilege can blind us to these behaviors and make us defensive. However, it is essential to listen, understand, and learn from the other person’s perspective before defending ourselves. Being aware of our own unconscious biases and systematically working towards circumventing them can help create more inclusive environments at work while also improving peer relationships.
While diversity and inclusion initiatives rightly focus on creating a cleaner, more open company culture, we must also remember to look out for those thousand paper cuts that systemically cause the death of employee productivity.
About the Author
Arathi is a published researcher with Masters degrees in Applied Psychology from Women’s Christian College, Chennai, and Criminology from Bond University, Australia. She has done extensive work in developing and facilitating intervention programs focused on inclusion and wellbeing. Her experience includes working with people from different backgrounds, including refugee groups and offenders on probation at the Queensland Corrective Services. She has helped create cultural competency workshops for Australian public health officials to assist survivors of domestic violence.
In the last two years, Arathi had created a variety of content on mental health and wellbeing. Her work covered the mental health impact of domestic violence, adolescent mental health, and employee wellbeing. She has also designed and facilitated several workshops on employee mental health.
Arathi is responsible for research, content development, and program facilitation on wellbeing, inclusion, and diversity.