The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Microaggressions Can Have a Toxic Effect in the Workplace

This post was contributed by Sonja C.P. Armstrong of Emeritus Consulting Group, which has worked with CUPA-HR in the development of its position statement and implementation of its action plan for promoting excellence through diversity, equity and inclusion in the the higher education workplace.

Lately there’s been a buzz in social media about “microaggressions” that occur on college and university campuses.  (See, for example, the “I, Too, Am Harvard” photo campaign on Tumblr that evolved into full-fledged theatre performance.)  Although the term has existed for years in the academic realm, the concept that brief and commonplace verbal or behavioral indignities can have a significant impact on how we perform individually and interact with one another has taken root broadly, including in workplace environments.

So, what is a microaggression?  Often unconscious and unintentional, a microaggression is a small, subtle, everyday verbal or nonverbal action (e.g., slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages) that communicates a hostile, derogatory and/or negative point of view and leaves people feeling overlooked, undervalued, disrespected and/or silenced.  Those who inflict microaggressions are often unaware that they have done anything to harm another person.  Columbia University professor of psychology and education Dr. Derald Wing Sue explains further in the video below:

Microaggressions can have a negative impact on everything from hiring efforts to day-to-day interactions among colleagues. In the area of talent recruitment, for example, microaggressions might include leaving colleagues off of e-mails during the search process, making assumptions about the skill level of a candidate because of his or her background, and checking email or texting during a committee discussion.  While such actions may seem at first blush trivial and harmless, they can have a toxic impact on both valued employees and potential hires.

Do you have an example to share? Why are microaggressions difficult to respond to?  Have you or your institution done so with success? What are some strategies for preventing microaggressions and promoting inclusion?