Creating inclusive workplaces: addressing microaggressions effectively

Anyone can commit a microaggression, but understanding one’s mistake and being mindful in the future is key (iStock)
Anyone can commit a microaggression, but understanding one’s mistake and being mindful in the future is key (iStock)


Microaggressions can create a challenging and distrustful environment in workplaces. While individual effort is integral, organisations can help minimise microaggressions by sensitising employees

Over her 22-year-career in Delhi and Mumbai at various digital media and consumer technology organizations, Merril Diniz has had “energized, often delighted" responses from colleagues when she mentions that she is from Goa. But there have also been ignorant and insensitive reactions like “OMG, does anyone ever work in Goa?" or on hearing that she graduated from Goa University -̶ “Really? Goa has a university?" Diniz ignored the remarks initially, but they began to bother her when she encountered them repeatedly. “I don’t believe there is a malicious intent, but there’s a casual ignorance and insensitivity displayed," says Goa-based communications professional Diniz (47).

These seemingly innocuous remarks are common everywhere, including the workplace. There’s a term for them – microaggressions, which are words or actions that disrespect aspects of our identity, spanning race, gender, sexuality, appearance, socioeconomic background, disabilities, and more. Women being told to “stop being sensitive," or assuming that they are unable to handle challenging work because “they have to get home to take care of the kids". Comments like “You don’t look Punjabi" or similar assumptions based on stereotypes. Telling someone from an economically disadvantaged background that they “speak so well." Microaggressions appear harmless, but their impact ranges from mild annoyance to deep hurt, potentially causing depression, stress, and burnout over time. The influence of rampant microaggressions transcends the individual, and permeates organizational culture, creating a distrustful and challenging environment.

What’s the fuss about?

Studies shows the prevalence of microaggressions and their impact in workplaces. A 2019 survey of 4,275 Americans showed 60% witnessing or potentially witnessing a microaggression at work. In a Glassdoor survey of European and American employees, 34% experienced or witnessed ageism, 33% gender-based discrimination, 30% racism, and 24% sexuality-based discrimination.

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Some of Koninika Roy’s worst experiences with microaggressions were at her first job, at an LGBT rights organization, where coworkers regularly remarked on her body, clothes, and hair. Joining just when she had ended a restrictive diet, she rapidly regained weight over her time in the company. “The stark difference between my weight when I joined and when I left was also something they constantly pointed out," says Mumbai-based Roy (30) who works with a DEI consulting firm. Demoralized by the regular barbs, which bother her till today, Roy turned to binge eating because it brought her some comfort. She eventually left the organization.

“If I told them that they were being fatphobic, I was mocked and passive aggressively told I was ‘too sensitive’ and ‘everyone has to go through this.’" This casual attitude often defines microaggressions, passed off as jokes and something to be tolerated in everyday office banter. It is probably why people tend to shrug them off, lest they be labelled “weak" or excluded further for complaining.

Malvika Tewari (32), a Bengaluru-based illustrator and graphic designer, has been impacted by microaggressions in prior workplaces, like the startup she worked at during her early-twenties. “I used to call out sexism at the workplace, which was seen as ‘feminazi’ behaviour’," she says. Related or unrelated to this, some male colleagues made fun of her. “Like joking about my chin hair, or saying that my arm hair was gross."

At another workplace, a female teammate whispered to Tewari that she should deal with “this" - pointing to Tewari’s upper lip. “Like it was her duty to inform me." These remarks bothered her each time. “I would have liked to be a good sport if they meant it lightly, but I feel that body politics are heavily skewed against women and Eurocentric standards is constantly demanded of Indian bodies," she says.

Dealing with microagressions

Saswati Barat, founder and CEO of behavioral services and consulting firm AIOU suggests not reacting instantly to a microaggression, but asking a follow-up question, like “Are you trying to make a point?" or “Is there something you want to say that you are not saying?"

“Most often people are taken aback, especially those who have bullying tendencies, when they are cross questioned," she says.

Diniz used some instances as “teachable moments", telling people that Goans are engaged in all kinds of occupations – like fishing, agriculture, medicine, sports, and engineering; or that Goa does indeed have a university and is home to one of Asia’s oldest medical institutions - Goa Medical College. “People do tend to be more mindful once they are called out."

Tewari prefers picking her battles. In one instance, she sent a strongly worded email to the person, after which he apologized. At other times, she has shared her experience on social media, the online support helping her to heal.

Anyone can commit a microaggression, but understanding one’s mistake and being mindful in the future is key. Diniz once prodded a colleague for his last name to include on a project. “He got very triggered and refused to share it. Later, he told me that he wanted to protect his caste identity as he had experienced a lot of discrimination." The eye-opening experience prompted her to be more perceptive.

Roy remembers complimenting someone on losing weight, but apologized when the person told her it was “rude". “One never knows what circumstances people have lost weight in, and whether they want comments on their body - it is hardly ever a welcome remark."

Organizational support

It is challenging to be aware of all exclusionary and discriminatory language and behaviour, which keeps evolving. But ignorance cannot be a constant excuse. There is a continuous journey of learning so that we are mindful of potential microaggressions.

While individual effort is integral, organisations can help prevent or minimise microaggressions by sensitising employees. Diniz has observed many companies focused on gender-related microaggressions. “But I believe we need more guidance and engagement around community, religion, caste, socio-economic backgrounds, and beyond, since India is so diverse." 

Some companies are attempting to address these gaps. “It is undeniable that in chasing ambitious growth plans, there can be instances of subtle insensitivities, overlooking, or discounting based on parental status, gender, etc, that may lead to reinforcement of harmful stereotypes," says Rajni Khurana, Chief People Officer at data technology lending platform UGRO Capital. To address this, the organization holds regular trainings and workshops on the company’s values and code of conduct for all employees; and on effective people management for their managers. “Specifically for gender sensitivity, returning mothers, and single parents, we plan to run workshops on Unconscious Bias for all employees," says Khurana. They also have grievance redressal and whistleblower frameworks for employees to communicate easily without the fear of retaliation.

“Through targeted training programs, interactive workshops, and open dialogues, we aim to raise awareness about microaggressions and their impact on individuals’ well-being and professional growth," says Sreya Ghosh Oberoi, Senior Director, Diversity & Inclusion, India, Capgemini. The organization has also formed guidelines and protocols for reporting and addressing instances of microaggressions, ensuring swift and appropriate action.

Addressing microaggressions is important, but Barat highlights dealing with them with empathy and openness. “One must listen to the person who complains of a microaggression, and not brush it under the carpet." She suggests that any penalization policy be productive, starting with a clear warning, giving the offending party a chance to explain themselves, making them aware of how their remarks or behaviour were problematic, and how they can change it.

It is evident that continual awareness and sensitization is needed to minimise microaggressions and cultivate more inclusive workplaces. “At the end of the day, when people are friendly and trusting of each other, they work better because everyone works in a better state of mind," says Barat.

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Also read: Why the push for diversity and inclusion has to start in schools


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