What’s “microaggression?” (and why you need to know)

We’ve all heard the term “death by a thousand cuts” right?  In the context of bullying and sexual harassment, the perpetrator often chips away at their subject/s a little at a time.  One by one the actions and/or words may not be a big deal, but over time – and with repeated frequency – they can cause significant effects.

I’ve seen this type of behaviour in sexual harassment offenders; they start with a few comments, a few looks, and progress into less subtle actions and words over time.  Or they just keep flying under the radar.  It’s sort of like grooming.

It’s tempting to ignore microaggressions or pass them off as harmful banter.  After all, shouldn’t we be focusing on the obvious, overt discrimination that we can easily spot and (hopefully) manage?

Yes, we should.

But the build-up of these types of small and seemingly insignificant behaviours can have consequences on the victim’s physical and psychological wellbeing.  Knowing about these small behaviours, or allowing them to be normalised in the workplace, can not only make an employer vicariously liable for the result on victims, but fuel an unstable and toxic workplace.

But what actually is a “microaggression?’

Well, think of it in societal terms of racial or marginalised groups.  More closely watching an indigenous person through a department store, or perhaps a discriminatory comment to a disabled person disguised as a compliment.  Ask any non-European employee, an LGBTI person, or in fact any female, what their experience is of microaggressions, and they’ll soon tell you all about it.

Subtle or normalised behaviours can lead to big problems later.  Supervisors and managers need to know how to identify and manage this behaviour.  All staff need to be able to recognise the signs and have strategies to deal with it.

Letting things fester can be devastating later on.

So ask yourself… would you let that “little,” “harmless” or “innocent” comment slide, or tackle it head on?  Is it part of a wider pattern?  Or “that just the way (insert name of offender here) talks (or is).”

In the end it’s all about encouraging a positive workplace culture that applauds diversity and respect.  While that sounds like a campaign, it’s generally true that all people want to do is come to work and be happy.  Be alert for subtle bullying and harassment and it can save you a lot of heartache in the future.

In an upcoming blog, we’ll show you some strategies to ‘disarm’ microaggression.

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