Disarming Workplace Microaggressions through Microinterventions

Daily expressions of microaggressions create a hostile and threatening employment climate, lower work productivity, and increase employee turnover.

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In my work with business and industry, I am often struck by how many employees remain silent when they witness or experience a racial, gender, or biased interaction with fellow workers. This is especially true when bias takes the form of racial or gender microaggressions; the everyday slights, put-downs, insults, and indignities that marginalized group members experience in their day-to-day interactions with well-intentioned workers who are unaware of their offensive and demeaning actions. Studies indicate that everyday expressions of microaggressions create a hostile and threatening employment climate, lower work productivity, interfere with problem-solving, and increase employee turnover.

What makes it difficult for people to interrupt a fellow worker when a racist remark is made? Being motivated to help is not enough when well-intentioned individuals lack the necessary strategies and actions required for effective interventions. At Teachers College, Columbia University, we have been training targets, allies, and bystanders on how to counteract, challenge, diminish, and neutralize interpersonal expressions of prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination through using microinterventions.

Microinterventions are anti-bias actions that fall under four strategic goals. Space does not permit us to cover the numerous best practices we have developed, so we describe only a few of them here.

4 Ways to Disarm Microagressions

1. Make the “Invisible” Visible. Most insensitive and hurtful comments and actions are outside the level of awareness of the perpetrator. Naiveté and innocence make it very difficult for offenders to change if they do not perceive their actions as prejudicial.  Microintervention tactics aimed at making the “invisible” visible take many forms.  Undermining or naming hidden communications is an example of one of these tactics. For example, a White worker says to a third-generation Asian American employee, “You speak excellent English!” The hidden communication here may be, “You are a perpetual alien in your own country. You are not a true American.” In using a microintervention tactic, the target responds, “Thank you. I hope so. I was born here.”

This tactic may seem simplistic, but it does several things. It acknowledges the conscious compliment of the perpetrator, lowers defensiveness for the comeback to follow, subtly undermines the unspoken assumption of being a foreigner, and plants a seed of possible future awareness of false assumptions. With some modification, this type of response also can be made by White allies or bystanders who hear or see the transgression. Racial awareness training has been found to be effective in helping individuals recognize prejudicial and discriminatory actions and to increase bystander intervention in the workplace.

2. Disarm the Microaggression. A more direct means of dealing with microaggression is to disarm them by stopping or deflecting the comments or actions through expressing disagreement, challenging what was said or done, and/or pointing out its harmful impact. One technique is to state emphatically, “Ouch!” This is a very simple tactic intended to (a) indicate to the coworker that they have said something offensive, (b) force the person to consider the impact and meaning of what they have said or done, and (c) facilitate a possible more enlightened conversation and exploration of biases. Some examples are the following. Those people all look alike. “Ouch!” He only got the job because he is Black. “Ouch!” I am putting you on the finance committee because you people (Asian Americans) are good at that. “Ouch!”

Another tactic found to be useful is to interrupt the communication and redirect it. During the course of a conversation when a biased and misinformed statement is made, simply interrupt it by directly or indirectly stopping the monologue, and communicating your disagreement or displeasure. Examples of verbal microinterventions are these: Whoa, let’s not go there. Danger, quicksand ahead! I don’t want to hear the punchline or that type of talk.

3. Educate the Perpetrator. Most microinterventions are not meant to be punitive, but rather educational. The ultimate goal is to reach and educate the employee by engaging them in a dialogue about what they have done that has proven offensive.

One of the most powerful educational tactics is to help microaggressors differentiate between good intent and harmful impact. People often claim that I did not intend it that way. To overcome the blockage, it is often helpful to refocus the discussion on impact instead of intent. Some common statements may be the following. I know you meant well, but that really hurts. I know you meant it as a joke, but it really offended Aisha (or me). I know you want the Latinas on this team to succeed, but always putting them on hospitality committees will only prevent them from developing leadership skills. I know you kid around a lot, but think how your words affect others.

4. Seek External Reinforcement or Support. There are times when individual efforts to respond to microaggressions might be unwise or dangerous. Seeking help from institutional authorities often is dictated when (a) a strong power differential exists between perpetrator and target, (b) the microaggression is blatant and immediately harmful, (c) it would be risky to respond personally, or (d) institutional changes must be implemented.

For example, a discriminatory act by a manager may best be handled by reporting to a higher authority or seeking an advocate with the same social/employment standing as the perpetrator within the company. Using external sources is meant to allow targets, allies, and bystanders to express their emotions in ways that are safe, to connect with others who validate and affirm their being, and to offer advice and suggestions.

In conclusion, microinterventions have three major beneficial impacts. First, they serve to enhance psychological well-being and provide targets, allies, and bystanders with a sense of control and self-efficacy. Second, they counteract, change, or stop microaggressions by subtly or overtly confronting and educating the perpetrator. Third, they have been found to create an inclusive and welcoming environment, discourage negative behavior, challenge false consensus, and reinforce norms that value respectful interactions.

Excerpt from “Microintervention Strategies” by Elizabeth Glaeser, Narolyn Mendez, Sarah Alsaidi, Cassandra Z. Calle, and Derald Wing Sue (December 2020).

Derald Wing Sue is Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Those wishing more information on microinterventions should see his recent book, Microintervention Strategies: How you can disarm and dismantle individual and systemic racism and bias. Sue has also collaborated with SunShower Learning to create an eLearning course aimed at raising awareness about microaggressions, and acquiring anti-bias tools in the workplace.