Dear Kiki: How can I help a colleague deal with microaggressions at work?

Dear Kiki:

I witnessed a microaggression against my colleague from a senior member of our team. I could tell she was extremely uncomfortable but decided to shrug it off. Having been caught in a similar situation before, I am upset for her and want to speak up. However, I don’t want to put her in a difficult position. What is the best way to offer my support but also confront the microaggressions in our workplace?”

— Supportive yet Stymied

Workplace microaggressions are harmful

Dear Supportive yet Stymied. 

I am sorry to hear that you and your colleague are being treated this way. Even though workplace microaggressions are often brushed aside as offhand remarks or friendly banter, their devastating impacts are not to be taken lightly.

It may seem like the most effective way to vanquish microaggressions in a workplace is to identify and call them out. However, in reality it is rarely so simple and is not an easy task to tackle alone. 

Two people are in an office with their computers. One is talking while the other listens.
Photo credit Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

These indignities surface in small and subtle ways, and take on various forms of microinsults, microinvalidations and microassaults. Over time, they can take a serious toll on one’s mental and physical well-being, causing feelings of isolation, burn-out and self-doubt that lead to serious illnesses like depression, helplessness, and substance abuse.

When implicit biases reign free at an organization, they create a toxic environment. Employees become unmotivated, disengaged and undervalued, which can manifest in absenteeism and low job satisfaction. The waning morale and hostility undermines the overall productivity and team cohesion.

One thing is for certain, your colleague is incredibly fortunate to have you to support her throughout this process. 

HOLD SPACE AND BE A SOUNDING BOARD

The first step is to check in with your colleague and offer your emotional support. 

Let her know what you observed and ask how she is doing. Hold space for her to process her feelings and acknowledge any discomfort she had felt or may currently be feeling. 

By initiating the conversation and validating her experience, you can alleviate some of the self doubt off her shoulders.

The biggest hurdle to addressing microaggressions is that occasionally, they are rooted in ignorance and implicit bias. This makes it difficult to recognize and to convey to those who are unaware of the privilege and the unconscious stereotypes they hold. 

Woman looks at a computer while in distress. She holds her head in her hands.
Photo credit Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

Sometimes, individuals who encountered such an offense may even question if it really did happen and wonder if they are being overly sensitive.

Because microaggressions play out like guessing games, the individual on the receiving end is taxed with additional emotional labour.

Not only are they responsible for determining the validity of the offense, the responsibility falls on them to decide how they should address the issue or not at all.

That’s why it’s important for you to remind her that implicit biases exist, at your workplace and everywhere else and emphasize that she is not alone. Share your own experience if you are comfortable speaking about it, or point out other occurrences you may have observed.

Help her from turning the blame inwards. Make it a point to assure her that she is not the problem, and remind her that these incidents reflect deeper systemic issues within the organization.

Also keep in mind that you are the sounding board. Through empathy and active listening, you are enabling her to cope and to find her voice.

EVALUATE YOUR OPTIONS

After you have reflected on the situation, the next thing to do is look forward. Inquire about her next course of action and how you can support her. As much as you want to help her, the decision is hers.

It may help to offer different options of responding to the microaggression: let it go, call it out immediately, or bring it up later. 

A green speech bubble with three yellow dots made of scrunched up paper.
Photo credit: Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Perhaps she would like to initiate a follow-up conversation with the senior colleague in private. Or, if it’s too overwhelming, she can strategize how to handle the situation if it happens again.

While speaking up is one way to disarm these hurtful remarks, it requires a great deal of emotional energy and may present a risk to personal safety. Understandably, she would need to consider the negative implications on her career and how she might be perceived hereon after. 

After all, confronting a senior colleague can be intimidating and is not without its repercussions. Let your colleagues know that while it is valorous to stand up against mistreatment, it is just as important to prioritize her wellbeing.

Bottom line, encourage them to do what is best for them. Remember this may look different for everyone. 

Read more: Dear Kiki: How can I say I’m not the DEI teacher they need?

Make a plan and Stick together

Should your colleague decide to raise this issue, the best place to start is to form a plan. 

Given that you both work at the same place, anticipate the reactions the senior colleague may have and the different directions the conversations can steer. Then, strategize based on each scenario. Creating a script of all the talking points is also a helpful way to prepare her for the conversation.

A person at a cafe, writing out their plans in a colored notepad with a cup of coffee.
Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

If you think the senior colleague might become defensive, she may want to disarm them first by focusing on how the situations made her feel.

Another approach is to ask the aggressor to elaborate on their comment and clarify their intent. When doing this, it may help to paraphrase occasionally and invite the colleague to reflect on what they said and reckon with their biases.

Even if she does not choose to confront the person at this time, these are effective strategies to resort to if she encounters a similar situation again.

Discuss how you might play an active role in helping her to navigate or respond to these microaggressions in the future as a bystander. Sometimes, simply redirecting the conversation can help relieve the uncomfortable situation.

With a solid plan and a supportive network, hopefully you will both feel more equipped and empowered to combat these harmful behaviours in the future.

We all have a role to play in challenging the microaggressions at a workplace, especially within a system that is built to oppress the voices of the marginalized groups.

Therefore, we must continue to connect with one another and open up about our experiences. One day, we will break through this sound chamber together.

Always here for you,

Kiki


Dear Kiki is Cold Tea Collective’s advice column and it is published in the last week of every month. To get advice from Kiki, submit your questions and comments here. Or, subscribe to our newsletter to get Kiki’s advice straight to your inbox on the last Sunday of every month.

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