Every workplace has at least one.
That guy who excels at preening, politicking and pushing women to the sidelines: Mr. Microaggression. He is a master of subtle slights and snubs.
Microaggressions are everyday comments or actions that trample the dignity of women but also visible minorities and other equity-seeking groups. Intentional or not, these acts of bias or discrimination cause great harm.
Human resources experts say such behaviours taint workplace cultures. And in the post-#MeToo era, these routine acts of exclusion, which are too often dismissed by managers, are creating legal, regulatory and reputational risks for companies.
“In our globalized world, overt racism, sexism and other prejudices are officially unacceptable – which unquestionably marks progress – but bias still finds expression in aversive or avoidant behaviour,” states a human resources guide prepared for UKG Inc. by Vancouver-based Parris Consulting.
“Where outright violence and oppression were once rampant, prejudice expresses itself more subtly now – in the form of microaggressions.”
Sure, some colleagues deserve the benefit of the doubt if they commit a faux pas or make a clumsy remark at work. But well-meaning folks generally have the reflex to acknowledge and apologize for hurtful behaviour.
Mr. Microaggression, however, undermines his colleagues with impunity. And make no mistake, everyone in your organization knows it.
Although he is not shy about showing disdain for certain male co-workers, women – especially those who are junior to him in age, rank or tenure – make up the majority of his targets because they are less likely to fight back.
He is, of course, smart enough not to say or do anything overtly sexist. After all, plausible deniability is pivotal to his pretense of professionalism.
Instead, his behaviour is less conspicuous: leaving female colleagues off e-mails, interrupting them during meetings, passing off his grunt work, going over their heads to snatch away plum assignments, commandeering internal committee work or elbowing them out of high-profile presentations to top bosses.
Some women are also guilty of flexing their privilege by perpetrating microaggressions against their colleagues. Whether it is on the basis of race, sexual orientation, disability or some other difference, such comments or actions amount to an abuse of power because they have the effect of discrediting their intended targets.
“Even if the slights are ignored or minimized, the work environment may still be chilly,” the human resources guide states. “It’s hard to feel collegial toward people who commit microaggressions. It’s uncomfortable pretending everything is okay when it’s not.”
Equally frustrating is the inaction of managers who chalk up such incidents to misunderstandings, coincidences or personality quirks. Perhaps the biggest mistake they make is appearing more concerned about placating the perpetrators instead of doing right by employees who have suffered repeated indignities.
Diversity and inclusion have become buzz words in corporate Canada. But business leaders who wilfully ignore systemic discrimination in their workplaces, including by downplaying the harmfulness of microaggressions, will experience higher turnover of top talent and expose their companies to legal and regulatory problems.
Microaggressions aren’t just about bruised feelings – they also create business risks.
Global banking regulators, for instance, are increasing their scrutiny of culture and conduct risks after being urged to do so by the Financial Stability Board, an international body that makes recommendations to improve stability of the global financial system.
In Canada, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI), for instance, is continuing its “work on advancing culture as a key area of focus” in its supervision of financial institutions.
OSFI has wrapped up its initial cultural reviews of banks and insurance companies, spokeswoman Carole Saindon said in an e-mailed statement. Those introductory assessments specifically probed how cultural factors affect “strategic decision making” inside financial institutions.
“These reviews have provided insights into behavioural indicators such as transparency and communication, diversity of thought, ability to provide challenge and reflective learning,” Ms. Saindon said.
Of course, microaggressions are just one facet of a problematic corporate culture. It also clear that culture and conduct risks affect more than just banks and insurers. Recent scandals involving technology, entertainment or natural-resources companies also highlight the link between human behaviour, social mores and excessive risk-taking.
That’s precisely why, as a starting point, business leaders across all sectors must be pro-active about educating their employees about microaggressions and how to respond to them.
“It’s critical to understand the current thinking on microaggressions – how they are (or should be) defined, how they may cause harm, how and why they should be called out, and what critics have to say about them,” the human resources guide adds.
“This last point is crucial because organizations and HR professionals need to make decisions about employee relations. If an accusation of committing a microaggression is levelled, they will need to understand it from all sides.”
Still, the onus shouldn’t be on women and minorities to solve the systemic discrimination they face at work. That’s the responsibility of business leaders and HR departments.
The #MeToo movement should have been a wake-up call for the business community that microaggressions can signal much deeper problems with corporate cultures. In fact, there’s even a microaggression app for women in the workplace, Variety reported earlier this year.
Managers need to stop coddling toxic employees. Mr. Microaggression isn’t misunderstood by his coworkers, he’s a menace to your company. Time to keep him in check.
Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? Email us at GWC@globeandmail.com.