Using Mentoring to Address Microaggression in the Workplace

Today, we live in a culture where it feels comfortable expressing one’s opinion without fear of consequence or retribution.  We enjoy having conversations with our co-workers, that expand the dialogue about life, love, family and basic differences.  However, there have always been a few topics that should be addressed delicately, to avoid confrontations, conflict, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. These topics include but are not limited to race, politics, and religion.  This caused me to think, are their hidden viewpoints and innuendos hidden in the basic general conversations we now have with our work colleagues, that could be viewed as microaggression.

For example, there are many types of microaggressions at work, that have begun to reveal themselves, in the last several years, that may be a result of the change of our political climate, peoples thoughts about sensitive topics, and, general censoring of conversations in the workplace to avoid conflict.  Some are obvious, some are not so easy to interpret:

  • I’m not a racist, I have several Black Friends;
  • I believe the most qualified person should get the job; and
  • There is only one race, the human race—

Do we now work in a culture hidden with microaggression? 

What does microaggression look like in the workplace?

So what exactly are microaggression(s), Columbia professor Derald Sue, refers to it as, “a brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Before reading this definition, I did not realize that microaggressions were so embedded in racial treatment. However, upon further review, I now understand that the unintentional forms of this aggression come from individuals unaware that they are delivering biases when sharing their world views.  Microaggressions, are broader than racial slurs and epithets, they seem to appear in three forms, micro assault, microinsult, and microinvalidation.  

The microassault is an explicit verbal or nonverbal attack, the microinsult, is the conveyance of rudeness and insensitivity of a person’s racial heritage or identity, and the microvalidations are the exclusion and nullifications of an individual’s thoughts and feelings.

Individuals strive hard to make connections at work, these working relations in some cases may be as important as the ones we value in our personal lives.  However, finding the commonalities, delivering compliments, or simply attempting to make personal connections can be the most difficult task, when we do not have a good understanding of our cultural differences.

What would be useful

When mentoring is used effectively, we create a safe space to discuss issues with our Mentor about topics that have previously been difficult to tackle.  Individuals who strive to create harmonious and healthy relationships, take time to ensure they are culturally sensitive to individuals who are different than themselves.   Having to sensor one’s self, is not the wisest approach to bridge the disconnect between micro aggressive behavior and honest intrigue.  The goal should be to ensure you own your statements and choose your inquiry and connections with thought and sensitivity.  A couple of tips can be useful when you observe these behaviors in the workplace:

  1. Wait and learn—, find your comfort level in teaching but not preaching your own personal viewpoint; hearing the full viewpoint of others, is a method to not be quick to judge what behaviors others are displaying.
  2. Listen to understand–, not to be understood, you sharing your viewpoint is not as important as fully understanding why this/these individual have expressed this sort of bias at work.  When you have a thorough understanding, decide what is the best course of action to educate without blaming and or shaming.
  3. Accept and grow—the workplace is an organic environment to ensure all feel welcome and safe, choose your role, own it and ensure you remain as educated as those who wish to learn from your sensitivity to this form of abuse.

Understanding that cultural diversity in workplace is an important element to embrace all people irrespective of race, etc., tends to add deeper understanding of unintentional exhibited biases. It is about giving equal understanding, access and opportunities and getting rid of discrimination and intolerance (removal of barriers). It affects all aspects of public life and can be a catalyst for change in the workplace and seen as a universal right and a responsibility to live without microaggression.

A Final Thought

In a nutshell, empowering people to respect and appreciate what makes them different, in terms of race has deep rooted goals to help avoid the obvious microaggressive behavior. 

Some racism is so subtle that neither victim nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is going on—which may be especially toxic for people of color.  When you are mentoring, coaching or teaching others in the workplace you have a responsibility to ensure you leave people with something positive to think about.  It is quite possible to change the world with one person at a time. 

By Janet Williams

As Director of Human Capital and Performance Consulting for Coley & Associates, Dr. Janet E. Williams provides Government clients and commercial companies insight on how to leverage resources and maximize services for improvements to company operations. She specializes in mentoring, progressive management process improvements, accountability and control, revenue enhancements, and other organizational change methods. For almost 20 years, Dr. Williams worked in government and head an Emerging Leaders Program for mentoring youth. Janet holds a bachelor’s degree in Accounting from Hampton University a MBA from Troy State University, and her doctorate in Public Policy and Leadership from Walden University.

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