How to NOT take the sparkle out of someone at work with microaggressions

Microaggressions are often small, many times unintentional, mean or insensitive comments, questions or bias-based assumptions we are all guilty of. Yes, you do it too sometimes. And we do too. They can deflate and hurt a person’s feelings and take away their sense of safety. They have no place in our professional lives, but they are there.

The problem is we don’t always recognise them or know how to respond to them. What makes these seemingly tiny insults so damaging is they are usually aimed at already marginalised groups and individuals.

In this blog, we shine a spotlight on how microaggressions can happen to anyone at work and why we need to be sensitive to the injury they do.

Don’t have time to read the whole blog entry? Then watch our “Blog in 1 minute” video for a quick summary of its main points:

Going from a full happiness balloon to a depleted one

We’d like to tell you a story. It’s a bit of a sad tale, but the happy ending is that it doesn’t have to be. Our main character is a wonderful person named Beau Bellamy. We bet you’ve met a person just like Beau. Very sweet, a great friend, a smart, hard-working colleague and a valuable asset to the team at work.

But what makes our Beau special is that he has a very high positive energy that makes him great to be around. As corny as it sounds, when he walks into a room, he lights it up. It’s as if he is electric. He is just one of those people.

Beau works for a big company in a city called Lucilinburhuc (Little Fortress). This is a beautifully preserved mediaeval place of international heritage with very friendly people and a whole world of Europe to visit all around him. Beau is an expatriate and very experienced at what he does. He comes from a big city in a country far away, has a healthy career and has been wanting to live in Europe all his life.

Beau has been working at his new employer now for about three months, still finding his way, but excited to be in such a cosmopolitan country with such nice people. On this particular day, his energy level is very high, because he has won a trip to Asia and he is dying to tell his colleagues, who, he is sure, will share in his joy.

So, just before his first meeting, when everyone is grabbing a coffee in the super nice kitchen area provided for them by the company so that everyone feels relaxed and comfortable, he excitedly breaks the news.

“We won a trip to Asia. We are so excited!”

“That’s fantastic,” says Marta, the colleague he sits next to most days. “So you are married? We were pretty sure a good looking guy like you already had a wife, am I right?”

Beau’s energy level drops a little. A bit of his shine begins to fade.

“Yes I have been married for eight years and we are still very much in love. My husband João is a super guy. He’s an architect. You would really like him. And as we have never been to Asia, we are both very excited.”

“Wow, I would never have guessed you were gay,” says Edward, Beau’s manager. “You don’t seem it at all.”

“Hey, we don’t have to worry about you ever having to take paternity leave,” jokes Nathan, who is leaning against the wall eating two company-provided bananas while having three free apples stacked in front of him.

“Another person who won’t understand about picking up the kids from school and why it’s so tricky to juggle being a mom and a professional,” says Anna, who is smart as a whip and a lynchpin of the team, but a wee bit intimidating.

Beau and João have been trying to adopt for two years and the process is exhausting them. He lets out a small sigh. A puff of deflation.

A nervous quiet descends on the room.

Beau’s energy level drops further. His shine is fading away.

“Well what does gay seem like?” he asks, but he tries not to be annoyed because he is happy about his trip and wants to get along with his colleagues.

“Oh, you know what I mean,” replies Edward.

Two of the people who should be at the meeting are clearly feeling uncomfortable and walk out to another end of the kitchen, ostensibly to avoid this conversation.

“What country does João originally come from?” asks Marta trying her best. “I guess he did his education and got his license when he moved here to Europe?”

“Oh, is he Cape Verdean?” It’s hard to tell where this comment has come from.

“João was born here in Lucilinburhuc. He has lived here all his life.” Beau’s responses are beginning to sound a bit crisp.

“Well you two should have fun in Asia,” says Tod, the party guy of the team. “Just make sure you have all your shots cause I can guess where you two will be going. And I mean, shots – for everything – wink wink. You never know what you might catch. Know what I mean?”

In this meeting are two interns who are very young. They don’t say a word.

Beau’s energy has now drained out of him. What exactly did Tod just infer?

Still trying to not get angry, Beau says, “Why don’t we start the meeting,” He pulls up a chair. He can feel the air leaking out of his imaginary happy helium balloon.

“Don’t sit too near me buddy,” Tod winks and points to another chair. “I’m a bit too good looking. Your type always goes for me.”

Marta and Edward laugh.

Beau wants to say, “Well you haven’t seen my husband,” but restrains himself.

At this point, Beau’s lack of energy is being replaced by a range of emotions—surprise, exasperation, and a growing anger. He isn’t in Kansas anymore. And it’s starting to show on his face.

Just before sitting, Edward gives Beau a hearty slap on the back. “Oh come on, man up dude. You are going to have to be able to put up with a bit of friendly teasing if you are going to be on this team.”

Somewhere in his imaginary distance, Beau can decidedly hear his happiness balloon pop.

Been there? Done that?

We hope this situation doesn’t feel familiar to you, but sadly it happens all too often. And we have tried to show you a scenario that more demonstrates cases of ignorance and unawareness rather than people being malicious (although that certainly occurs too). It’s just such situations that fly under the radar.

How should a person or persons react when they see someone being micro-aggressed like this?

Lighten up!

One way that people often react is to assume that the person being microaggressed is being “over-sensitive”. Everyone is just joking and the target person—like Beau—should just lighten up. Well, here at the blog we love a good joke just as much as the next person, but not when it’s made at the expense of someone else’s happiness and sense of self and security.

We would also like to point out at this time that we are focussing on a particular scenario in this blog because it’s that time of the year—Pride. But as we are moving into the age of intersectionality, we should all be aware that microaggressions go far beyond being just aimed at LGBTQI+ people, and are in fact everywhere.

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality, intersectionality is the understanding that every individual has multiple, layered identities derived from social relations, history and the operation of structures of power.

As a consequence, different people can experience very distinct multiple discriminations and disadvantages that occur through the combination of identities and the intersection of sex and gender with other grounds. If you need more on that topic, you can find it in another blog we wrote entitled ‘Intersectionality at the workplace and why rainbow flags aren’t enough’.

So should people just lighten up? Should we just shrug microaggressions off and call them no big deal? Indeed, not only should we not, but companies should do more to create an environment of safety for all their workers, and develop a culture of awareness that involves training.

The terrible effect of microaggressions

According to the article ‘Recognising and Responding to Microaggressions at Work’, “research is clear about the impact seemingly innocuous statements can have on one’s physical and mental health, especially over the course of an entire career: increased rates of depression, prolonged stress and trauma, physical concerns like headaches, high blood pressure, and difficulties with sleep.”

“Microaggressions can negatively impact careers as they are related to increased burnout and less job satisfaction and require significant cognitive and emotional resources to recover from them. Further, the reality of the Great Resignation of 2021 has employers paying closer attention to how organisational culture can influence whether or not employees want to leave. One study found that 7 in 10 workers said they would be upset by a microaggression, and half said the action would make them consider leaving their job.”

To reiterate, our focus here is on the professional world (although you can certainly apply these situations to the greater world). The upside is that companies have an advantage. They can actually offer great safety through their policies, making their employees happier, able to be their true selves, and therefore more engaged. This in turn makes outsiders (potential recruits) see the company as attractive.

Embracing the rainbow to attract talent

In this current talent war in which we find ourselves, reaching out to the LGBTQI+ world and creating diversity inside a company isn’t only good—it’s good for business. Inclusive recruitment is one way to tackle the talent war.

Ever head of Monster? This is a global job posting website that more and more is advising companies ‘How to Prioritise LGBTQ Inclusion in the Workplace’. “Becoming a company that welcomes LGBTQ talent requires more than just not discriminating against them—it’s recognising that diversity can be a growth strategy,” says Nadia Rawlinson, Chief Human Resources officer at Live Nation. Consumers are diversifying, cultural lines are blurring, and the war for talent is its fiercest to date,” she adds.

Honestly, we wish we didn’t have to stress the argument for more inclusive policies in companies as a business advantage. But if it helps companies put policies in place to protect people like Beau and makes his colleagues aware of their actions so that everyone no matter who they are, how they define themselves, or where they come from, can feel free to be their authentic selves at work, then so be it. The truth is, more and more, people want to work for companies with a sense of purpose. Diversity is in fact good for business.

Don’t believe us? In a blog published by Hult International Business School—‘13 benefits and challenges of cultural diversity in the workplace’—the author Katie Reynolds, in a well researched article, points out seven advantages of diversity:

  1. Diverse cultural perspectives can inspire creativity and drive innovation;
  2. Local market knowledge and insight makes a business more competitive and profitable;
  3. Cultural sensitivity, insight, and local knowledge means higher quality, targeted marketing;
  4. Drawing from a culturally diverse talent pool allows an organisation to attract and retain the best talent;
  5. A diverse skills base allows an organisation to offer a broader and more adaptable range of products and services;
  6. Diverse teams are more productive and perform better;
  7. Greater opportunity for personal and professional growth.

As is clear from the title, there are challenges as well, but tackling these is worth it.

From a human rights point of view, now is the time to protect that rainbow. As the World Politics Review writes, ‘Human Rights Are Under Attack. Who Will Protect Them?’ Their emphasis is on diminishing LGBTQI+ rights in particular and what some companies can do to help.

Lip service no longer will do. Companies can’t just talk about it, they have to walk it. They should do it because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s fundamental if they want to be a relevant organisation with an attractive working culture.

For example, according to Human Resources Executive, “Newly released LGBTQ survey points to troubling metrics for employers in the US, where a growing wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation and recent attacks against Target, Anheuser Busch, Kohl’s and other employers over Pride Month activities, can potentially make a challenging situation even harder for some employers seeking to support and hire LGBTQ employees.

Such recent events, for example, can give employees pause in wanting to come out as a member of the LGBTQ community at work, or consider applying for jobs at employers based in states where recent anti-LGBTQ legislation has passed. That would not bode well for the troubling statistics employers already face when it comes to supporting and recruiting employees from the LGBTQ community.”

But Lucilinburhuc is fine!

At this point you might be thinking (especially if you live in Luxembourg), but we live in a nice free country where there is no discrimination. This is mostly true, however there is still work to be done.

This takes us back to those microaggressions—small unintentional insults that build over time and wound. First of all, these occur all the time in companies across this country without people even being aware of them.

Secondly, even if we live in a country where we consider human rights to be valued and progressive, due to the vastly international make-up of our country’s workforce—currently it’s estimated that 170 nationalities have been recorded across the country (including those we haven’t attracted yet but seek to)—there are many people who are LGBTQI+ and who come from countries where they have little to no rights to be themselves at all and where, in fact, persecution exists. It’s for these people, above all, that we should be sensitive.

So what can be done?

Learning how to recognise, deal with and eventually eliminate microaggressions in a company’s professional working environment has to be part of a larger and true commitment to creating an inclusive workplace.

In a blog we wrote in 2020, ‘How far have we come with LGBTQ+ inclusion at the workplace,’ we listed seven things businesses can (really) do to support the LGBTQI+ community at the workplace. We believe they still ring true today.

1. Develop a clear strategy for supporting LGBTQ+.

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Communication and transparency go hand-in-hand. Create a clear mission statement and a plan; then, present the business’ diversity and inclusion (D&I) policies and strategies for supporting the community in a transparent manner to employees of all levels.

2. Make D&I training compulsory in all employees’ development programmes.

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Educate them on how to manage personal beliefs and cultural backgrounds at the workplace so they can be more inclusive.

3. Educate them on how to manage personal beliefs and cultural backgrounds at the workplace so they can be more inclusive.

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Take sexual-orientation based discrimination seriously. Set up a strong anti-discrimination policy in your recruitment and career evolution practices, ensuring that all employees know what will not be tolerated. In cases of homophobic behaviour, it’s important to recognise the problem and take action promptly.

4. Choose an “ally champion” of the community. 

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There is no cause without allies. Invest in initiatives that identify and promote allies of LGBTQI+ employees, whose support for the community is crucial as well as their commitment to diversity.

5. Get the senior employees on board.

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Gain the support of the top management and on-board senior staff champions. The top management can help develop and implement diversity initiatives and training, while senior GBTQI+ employees can act as mentors to the community’s younger workers. They can also be the sponsors of employee network groups.

6. Support the local LGBTQI+ community.

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Show how your business supports the local LGBTQ+ community by informing employees of local events and groups. You can also become a sponsor of a Pride Party or a Pride Parade, celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), the National Coming Out Day (if your country has it) or even sponsor or participate in events such as LGBT+@Work. Additionally, you can encourage your employees to volunteer and participate in events like Pride Month or organise workshops and conferences with speakers that will educate your employees further on the subject.

7. Remember to be inclusive in benefits packages.

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Remember to include diversity in benefit packages. The truth is gendered language can cause benefits such as parental and maternal leave and adoption leave unintentionally exclude LGBTQI+ families. It’s important for HR employees to be aware of these biases, and of the need to use a more inclusive and gender-neutral vocabulary to ensure equal benefits regardless of sexual orientation. For example, the use of “partner” instead of husband or wife.

8. Support transgender employees.

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Over the past years, transgender visibility as well as their unique challenges have been brought to light. It’s crucial that businesses understand what steps should be taken to support an employee who comes out as transgender, and protects transgender employees in general. HR is an important player in supporting transitioning employees. To create a supportive and encouraging environment, HR professionals should be educated and trained to take on this responsibility.

Individuals, you have a part to play as well. If you see someone being microagressed, stand up and say something to make it stop. If it’s really harmful, report it. Don’t let other people in the workplace take a colleague’s energy and shine away. If you say something that you later realise was incorrect, be brave and apologise for it. Learn from your own microaggressions. Most of all, do the training, and commit yourselves to a new awareness that allows everyone to show their true colours. Beau will thank you for it.

This blog was written with the participation and support of Shine, the LGBTQI+ and Ally inclusive business network at PwC, acting to implement a safe working environment for everyone to be her/him or their selves in order to help unleash everyone’s potential.

To ensure this environment in Luxembourg, we have set up an ambitious action plan covering the training of leaders and key people managers, the creation and animation of our network of allies, events and common actions with external organisations, explicit HR and ethical policies, among others.

We have also joined up with a larger group of companies and organisation in Luxembourg in collaboration with IMS Luxembourg and Rosa Lëtzebuerg focusing specifically on hiring processes, equalisation of benefits for LGBTQI+, and visibility challenges. Both IMS and Rosa can support you in Luxembourg on your corporate inclusivity journey. SHINE is thankful to our People for embracing their role in I&D and recognising that it matters for all of us.

What we think
Marc Schernberg
Marc Schernberg de Plata Acevedo, Partner and SHINE Promoter at PwC Luxembourg

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance… but being conscious to be ignorant is already a great step towards knowledge.
I am still this kind of naive and simple human being who still believes that people do not naturally want to hurt others but make ‘communication errors’ and ‘stupid jokes’ just by not knowing the impact thereof or by mere fear of the unknown. This is why I strongly believe in the virtue of education—even just awareness—that gives you the keys to put oneself in another one’s shoes and help to look at things with a different perspective. Just imagine that Beau is your son, your brother, or your closest friend… would you wish him to be hurt and feel unhappy? Probably not. This is why we all should never give up and fight on all fronts to ensure everybody always feels safe and welcome. Happy Pride month!

Armin Prljaca
Armin Prljaca, Strategy Manager at PwC Luxembourg

Microaggressions may seem small, but their impact on a person’s wellbeing and sense of safety is significant. Just like Beau, who entered work with enthusiasm, only to have his energy drained by thoughtless comments and assumptions. Let’s recognise and respond to microaggressions, not dismiss them as oversensitivity. It’s time to create an inclusive workplace where everyone can shine without fear of discrimination. Organisations have the power to protect their employees, foster diversity, and reap the benefits of a more engaged and innovative workforce. So let’s embrace the rainbow, prioritise LGBTQI+ inclusion, and make our workplaces truly safe and welcoming for all.

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