THE BLOG

Microaggression: The New Workplace Bigotry

07/01/2014 10:18 am ET | Updated Aug 31, 2014
  • John Fitzgerald Gates, Ph.D. National Diversity Expert; Principal and Chief Strategist of Criticality Management Consulting; Former Associate Dean of Harvard College
Blend Images - JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

Ask any African American professional what a white person should never say to or about them and invariably the response will be: "You're very articulate." Why, you ask? Because such a statement assumes that African American professionals generally are not in command of "the King's English," a sentiment that would rarely be associated with a white professional. It is a contemporary way of saying: "You're a credit to your race." No less insulting, racist, or unacceptable as if the person had been called "the n-word". This seemingly trivial slight is a form of bigotry called a "microaggression" -- a small act of non-physical aggression based on bias and stereotypes, usually against someone racially or ethnically different than the perpetrator. Microaggressions are the negative assumptions we make about people that limit their humanity and value. As progressive as many workplaces are, we might be surprised that our everyday interactions are filled with microaggressions that undermine our self-worth and productivity.

A stark example of microaggression can be found in CNN's recent interview with embattled L.A. Clippers Owner Donald Sterling. While ostensibly attempting to apologize for his racist comments, Sterling refers to African Americans as "the blacks," a phrase embedded in the lexicon of racism, and of "owning" the players. He talks about "those AIDS" in referencing HIV-AIDS. Of Magic Johnson, a pillar of the African American community, he says: "I think he should be ashamed of himself. I think he should go into the background. But what does he do for the black people? Doesn't do anything...I just don't think he is a good example for the children of Los Angeles." Sterling -- a white racist -- sought to discredit an African American icon in the eyes of the African American community, a tactic often used in the Jim Crow South. In doing so, he proffered a series of microaggressions that in a work environment would negatively impact employee engagement, organizational climate, output, and the bottom line.

Women are subjected to microaggressions when they are sexualized by their male colleagues, judged harshly by female colleagues, or subjected to standards different from men. Barbara Walters, who became the first woman co-anchor of an evening news program in 1976, recalled that Harry Reasoner, her co-anchor at ABC News, refused to accept her and instead subjected her to demoralizing ridicule. Nearly forty years later, women are still burdened with workplace misogyny. Following a recent interview with General Motors CEO Mary Barra, NBC's Today show host Matt Lauer was roundly criticized for asking Barra if she could be a good mother and effective CEO of a major company. In suggesting that Barra could not balance work and motherhood, Lauer made a judgment about the competence of female executives that would never be made about male executives, like him, who are celebrated for being power players in boardrooms and great fathers at home. He advanced an erroneous and bigoted narrative that women are inferior to men. In doing so, he demeaned working mothers and damaged his own credibility on such issues.

Even more insidious, however, is when microaggressions are in play long before one enters the workplace -- when hiring managers make judgments about a person's qualifications and fit for a given job prior to giving fair consideration to the person's candidacy. These microaggressions are more than blind spots, as some suggest; rather, they are attitudes and perspectives that must be changed. Microaggressions can inhabit entire sectors, such as Silicon Valley where reports indicate Hispanic and African Americans makeup 6 percent of the technology workforce, compared to more than 12 percent nationally.

Google recently attributed its poor workforce diversity demographics to "unconscious bias" that cause hiring managers to unwittingly give preferential treatment to candidates who fit a given profile. As a result, Google's U.S. workforce is 3 percent Hispanic and 2 percent African American. But Google fails to reveal that underlying unconscious bias is a series of microaggressions that individually may seem innocuous, but as a whole are detrimental to the company. To counter public condemnation of its diversity numbers, Google is offering free computer coding lessons to women and minorities, but it has done nothing to find work for the 20,000 fewer African Americans, employed as computer programmers and systems analysts since the end of the Great Recession in 2011. Google has, in effect, eliminated those workers from its consciousness, in what may be its greatest microaggression of all.

Microaggressions diminish and stigmatize people, contributing to a $450 billion to $550 billion per year loss in U.S. workforce productivity, according to Gallop. The good news is that we can cure microaggressions by being self-reflective, empathetic, and willing to address our biases and their impacts on others. We must own up to the fact that microaggressions are harmful. Here's the safe bet and most proper point of reference: if we would not assume something about, or say something to, a straight white male professional, we probably should not do or say such a thing to an African American, a woman, LGBT member or any other group. Here, the standard must be equality of respect in the workplace. We should accept nothing less.