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Microaggressions in the workplace: Hidden discrimination

Hand on heart: Who has ever said something like "We need a strong man to carry this"? Or "Black people can dance so well"? Or maybe "It's really inspiring that you can do this despite your disability"? There's a good chance that everyone here can put their hand up - and has perhaps received similar comments themselves. Because microaggressions are (not only) commonplace in the workplace. They are the little comments, looks and touches that happen switfly but can leave you feeling uncomfortable. The term "microaggressions" is a little misleading, because these little tips don't have to sound aggressive and are often even meant to be very nice. So why are they a problem?


 Microaggressions reflect bias

 Biases and prejudices are often expressed very subtly in microaggressions. "Wow, your German is good!" sounds nice at first, but actually means "Someone who looks like you can't be German in my eyes." "If someone says to a trans woman: "I would never have thought that you weren't a real woman!" this is certainly meant positively, but it also resonates: "Trans women aren't real women in my eyes." This can go on and on, because our (unconscious) biases are always reflected in how we interact with other people.

Some questions say more about me than I realise. They reveal the norms and expectations I have of my counterpart. They are a reflection of my socialisation.


Microaggressions can trigger and demoralise those affected


Now, as I said, this affects all of us from time to time. So why should we concern ourselves with microaggressions in the workplace if they are obviously unavoidable? Quite simply, a microaggression on its own is briefly irritating and then quickly forgotten. But for people who deviate from the social norm in one way or another, a microaggression rarely comes alone. They experience these spikes every day, perhaps even several times a day. On the way to work, in the office, when shopping, from colleagues, strangers and even friends. This wears you down in the long run - especially because it is often not recognised and acknowledged as a form of discrimination. Instead, those affected often hear "Don't be like that" or "I didn't mean anything by it."


Why are microaggressions a problem in the workplace?


Our work has shown time and again that microaggressions in the workplace are a much bigger problem than explicit discrimination. While discrimination is usually recognised as such sooner or later, microaggressions often quietly poison the working atmosphere over a long period of time. Those who commit them don't notice them because they don't mean any harm - and those who experience them don't want to be spoilsports and don't address them. In the long run, this leads to a loss of trust and demotivation.


Three questions against microaggressions


Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to completely avoid microaggressions, especially as they are always subjective. What one person finds harmless is hurtful to another and vice versa. It helps to engage with the concerns of marginalised people and actively learn which microaggressions they experience. And it helps to scrutinise yourself:



  1. Would I also make this comment to a person who does not belong to a certain group? What kind of small talk would I make with Hans Müller, for example, instead of praising him for his German, like Mehmet Öztürk?

  2. How would I feel if someone said the same thing to me? Why?

  3. What is my relationship with the other person? Do I know the person well enough to judge whether they understand my intention behind the comment? How much power do I have over them and can they say freely if my comment makes them uncomfortable? (Especially important for managers!)


Mindfulness is the best remedy against microaggressions


This doesn't mean that we have to turn every word around in our mouths five times, but those who consciously ask themselves these questions on a regular basis train their own empathy and learn more about what can be unpleasant or hurtful for other people. And this mindfulness is the best remedy against microaggressions.



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