- Prejudiced comments and actions, known as microaggressions, are common in the workplace — and may be driving workers out the door, according to the results of a SurveyMonkey poll. Described as indirect, subtle or intentional forms of bias, microaggressions are lodged regularly against people of color, women, workers with disabilities and other marginalized groups, but are often hard to recognize, the survey of 4,275 U.S. adults showed.
- One respondent gave an example: "A senior partner asked to 'touch my hair' in order to confirm it was 'all mine.'" Another offered the following: "My hearing disability was described in a written evaluation by the board of trustees as 'making communication difficult for my co-workers.'" A common workplace microaggression occurs when people of color are told "you're well-spoken" at work because it implies that this is not the expectation, respondents said.
- Survey results found that 26% of respondents were certain they faced a microaggression at work while 22% were unsure. Another 36% witnessed the behavior, and 40% of respondents were confident that they'd never witnessed a microaggression, SurveyMonkey said. Respondents cited unprofessional behavior, demeaning comments about peers and having one's idea taken by someone else as examples of microaggressions that might cause them to quit.
The presence of microaggressions can expose flaws in even the best-intended diversity and inclusion plans. As the survey results found, microaggressions can be hard to call out as offensive — and therefore worthy of bringing to HR — because they're often subtle. However, with the SurveyMonkey results in mind, talent pros might find the damage from microaggressions can ruin working relationships and force out valued talent.
Besides alienating employees and potential hires, microaggressions may be used as a factor in determining whether an employer violated certain anti-discrimination laws. Inappropriate or otherwise demeaning comments, for example, have been cited in recent litigation involving the Americans with Disabilities Act.
HR should train managers on spotting and avoiding such comments, not only to avoid potential discrimination lawsuits, but also to retain talent and create an inclusive work environment. HR can work to address the problem by taking employees' complaints seriously and following up on reported microaggressions, launching a formal investigation when the behavior veers toward discrimination or harassment. It might also educate staff on the types of comments and behaviors considered offensive — regardless of intent — and keep in mind that a culture of inclusion strengthens organizations.