10 Minute Read

Overcoming Microagressions & the Bystander Effect in the Workplace

By Andrea Pohlsander:

For most of my career, I’ve worked as an administrative assistant in one capacity or another.  I love helping people and being the “go to” person to make things happen. When I support my team — even in the smallest way — and it helps them succeed, my personal success soon follows. But, in the past, there have been some people along the way that seem to think that because my job title includes the word “assistant” that makes me less somehow. Sometimes it has been little slights — like someone checking their email or cell phone when I’m trying to talk to them, being left out of team discussions where I could be useful, or just being talked down to.

Over the years, I’ve grown to have thick skin, and for the most part, I can brush it off. But now and then one slips through and makes me think, “ouch.”  By no means do I feel like these microaggressions carry the same weight as other more serious ones, but they have helped me to recognize and feel for those around me that are experiencing them, too. The hardest part for me has always been knowing what to do to help.

What are microaggressions?

Columbia University professor, Derald Wing Sue, defines microaggressions as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

Given the right situation, anyone can be the victim or perpetrator of microaggressions.

Become an ally and fight #microaggressions in your #workplace with these tips from @RMB_Andrea. Click To Tweet

Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions in the workplace run the gamut from phrases like “you speak excellent English”, mansplaining or constant interruptions, lack of attention, asking someone if that’s their “real” hair, choosing not to sit next to someone because of their color or size, and even requiring an individual to provide more evidence of competency than their peers. During many of these instances, the individual perpetrating the microaggression has no idea that their behavior or language is hurtful, harmful, or inappropriate. Moreover, the recipient often discounts it, thinking, “did that just happen” or wondering if they are too sensitive.

A microaggression may seem small or inconsequential, but when they are repeatedly dealt with, it compounds into a significant issue. Individuals experiencing repeated microaggressions often have a decline in productivity, a harder time learning, and often feel disempowered and isolated. Those witnessing it often suffer a version of the bystander effect and struggle with whether or not to say or do something as well. Many experience guilt or rationalize thinking that since the victim isn’t doing anything about it, maybe it doesn’t bother them. They assume someone else will step up, possibly have a fear of becoming a target themselves, or other harsher consequences, especially when the perpetrator is in a position of authority.

What is the bystander effect?

The bystander effect is the phenomenon that occurs when a person needs help or is in danger, and most bystanders are reluctant to intervene and stand by without assisting. While most of the studies regarding this phenomenon focus on extreme cases involving dangerous or traumatic events, it’s something that is also occurring within the workplace.

A workplace culture of regularly overlooked microaggressions with a consistent bystander effect can create a culture of anxiety, distrust, disempowerment, and ultimately a toxic and unsafe workplace.

How can we change and make a difference?

When you are the recipient of microaggressions directly:

  • Most people don’t want to be jerks. But even if they did, once you clearly and professionally point out the issue and how it can be resolved, it puts the responsibility back on the perpetrator. Try using the D.E.A.R. Structure presented at the STFM Conference on Medical Student Education:
    • Describe: Describe the situation. Stick to the facts.
    • Express: Express your feelings using “I” statements.
    • Ask/Assert: Ask for what you want
    • Reinforce: Reward (reinforce) the person ahead of time by explaining the positive effects of getting what you want.
  • Find an ally. Asking for help is hard, but sometimes it can make all the difference.
  • Remember that many times microaggressions are unintentional. Once someone knows that their behavior is harmful, most of the time, they will stop. If not, don’t be afraid to report it. You have the right to a safe and non-toxic work environment.

When you are the witness of microaggressions:

  • Intervene
  • Invite them to speak (this one immediately gives the power back to the victim)
  • Refer and encourage
  • Change the dynamics in the room by becoming an advocate
  • Don’t take part
    • Give them your full attention
    • Don’t interrupt
    • Echo and attribute
    • Learn the language (using the right pronouns, etc.)
    • Listen and learn
  • Don’t encourage the behavior
    • Do not stand by and watch
    • Make it clear you won’t be involved in the behavior
    • Don’t take part in harassing, teasing, or spreading gossip about others
    • Don’t advertise the poor treatment, especially online
    • Do not acknowledge, reply, or forward messages or photos that could be hurtful or embarrassing
  • Approach the recipient
    • Let them know you are aware of the behavior and that it’s not acceptable
    • Encourage them to ask for help, go with them to get help, or provide them with information about where to go for help
    • Let them know they are not alone
Foster allyship, sensitivity to #diversity, and #inclusion to create a safe work environment that empowers and enables a healthier and more productive #workforce from @RMB_Andrea. Click To Tweet

What businesses can do:

  • Create a culture that normalizes allyship, diversity, and inclusion
  • Establish clear behavior policies that state what behavior is required, what practice is outlawed, what the consequences for breach are, and implement them consistently
  • Ensure employees know how to recognize inappropriate behavior, and how to report it:
    • Provide all employees with training (induction and ongoing) on the following:
      • Sensitivity and how to identify unlawful actions, including discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment
      • The role the ‘supportive bystander’ plays and how to intervene effectively (consider including in your policies an affirmative duty to report or speak)
      • How to report inappropriate behavior, including whom to go to and any whistle-blower procedures and protections
    • Provide managers with training on the following:
      • How to triage or respond to a complaint, including whistle-blowers (if applicable)
      • How to protect the victim and bystander (whether anonymous or not)
  • Make sure that if employees do report behavior, that it will be dealt with fairly and not “swept under the rug,” or result in a backlash against themselves or the victim.

When you discover you have microaggressive behaviors (because sometimes we can all be a jerk):

  • Don’t forget that a sincere apology and correction in behavior can go a long way to improving relationships with those you may have unintentionally hurt
  • Be constantly vigilant of your behaviors and fears
  • Experiential reality (exposure to the things you have a bias against to learn more about it and discover how to correct it)
  • Don’t be defensive. Be willing to learn and re-learn until you get it right
  • Be open to discussing your attitudes or biases
  • Become an ally

I believe most people don’t want to cause harm to others or stand by while it happens to someone else. By educating ourselves, our workforce, and by fostering allyship, sensitivity to diversity and inclusion, we can create a safe work environment that empowers and enables a healthier and more productive workforce.

How have you overcome microaggressions at work? Tweet us @RedBranch and share!