By:  Katrina Jones

“Microaggressions” is a term that has become very mainstream recently. We have all heard the term but what are microaggressions? Microaggressions are defined as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”[1]

As an investigator or employer, it is important to understand microaggressions, because they may be the basis to substantiate an allegation or an important piece of a broader allegation. For context, here are some examples against People of Color microaggressions with a brief explanation:

  • “When I look at you, I don’t see color.” – This statement says to people of color that the person is unwilling to acknowledge the person’s racial /ethnic experiences.
  • “Where are you from?” – This statement conveys a presumption the person is not American and/or does not belong here.
  • “You are a credit to your race.” or “You are so articulate.” – These statements covey surprise with the skills of a person of color because generally they are not as intelligent or productive as Whites.

You may be thinking that some of those statements are stereotypes. It’s true. Sometimes stereotypes go hand in hand with microaggressions. Therefore, if you find stereotyping, you should also look for microaggressions.

So, how do you determine if microaggressions are present?

  • Ask the Complainant “Why is that a microaggression to you?” Then research whether it is a commonly known microaggression.
  • Can you identify an underlying bias (perhaps based on a stereotype)?
  • Ask the witnesses if they have heard the statement(s), how they perceived, and whether Complainant was offended/impacted by the statement.
  • Ask witnesses how often do you hear statements like that?
  • Does the Respondent make similar statements to people outside the protected category?

The issue with microaggressions is that they are small and (mostly) subtle by nature. However, the cumulative effect of monthly, weekly, or daily microaggressions can be substantial to an employee. That is why microaggressions have been referred to as “death by 1000 cuts.” Microaggressions can affect an employee’s mental state and make them less productive. Therefore, it is good for companies to address microaggressions during investigations and proactively with training.

Additionally, when investigating microaggression(s), carefully read the language of the policy. In some policies, a single microaggression can be enough to violate the company’s policy in other situations it may not. On the same note, determine if your scope is whether the microaggression happened or if there was a policy violation. Your findings may be different depending on what the scope is in these matters. Whatever the case, it is important for organizations to address microaggressions in the workplace because the effect workplace culture and productivity.