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  • Writer's pictureDealerPILOT HR

Respectful Workplace - Microaggressions

Harassment and violence prevention programs have been becoming more nuanced to the subtle acts or behaviors that may occur at the workplace. It is easy to label a physical threat or outright barrage of derogatory and aggressive language as harassment and violence but there is another form that is not quite as simple to address.

As our awareness of mental health protection in the workplace increases, we are becoming more acclimatized to noticing subtle forms of harassment where perhaps someone isn't physically at harm but they experience great amounts of discomfort. Discomfort to the point of not feeling mentally or emotionally safe in the workplace.

Some of this discomfort is attributed to microaggression. Although micro means small, these small communications or exchanges can lead to big problems - essentially death by 1000 cuts.

Microaggressions are the small, everyday, subtle, intentional, or unintentional interactions that communicate some sort of bias towards historically marginalized groups. Can be people of a certain gender, status, race, physical or mental capability.

Often the people that are committing the microaggressions are not aware of them and can become defensive if they are asked to explain their intentions. This puts the person that was hurt by the microaggressions to not only feel the pain of that interaction but then respond in a manner that doesn't lead to more marginalization.

A common example is a male passes by a group of coworkers but touches a woman on the small of her back to make it through the crowd. If the woman is uncomfortable she may want to ask him not to touch her but if she does she will run the risk of perpetuating the stereotype that women are too sensitive or too aggressive in the workplace.

She may even face ridicule, dismissiveness, or comments for identifying her boundary and need to not be touched without her consent such as an eye roll. None of us enjoy it when someone rolls their eyes at us. It may not seem a big deal for a person who is naturally comfortable to touch.

The man who touched her probably had no intention of making her personal space feel violated, he may even be hurt that someone would perceive them as hurtful.

There may even be women in the workplace that make physical contact without consent leading others to believe this is appropriate conduct for everyone.

The key is, if someone expresses their needs and respectful boundaries then simply thank them for communicating to you how they wish to be interacted with and conduct yourself accordingly.

Back to the touch example, when you pass through crowds do you touch anyone regardless of gender or position of authority, or do you, possibly even unconsciously, only touch people of a certain identity?

We are all human beings who are prone to mistakes, and we are all people that are capable of committing microaggressions. It's not that you need to be hard on yourself or those that may draw attention to your missteps, it's about a willingness to be more aware of your biases and how you impact people with your behavior and words. Often microaggressions are subtle acts of exclusion.

Another example, in dealerships especially, there is a stereotype of tradespeople being uneducated or lack an understanding of business or professional acumen. Or think about this...if you have a male receptionist or administrative person, do they receive shocked or odd glances or comments by customers or coworkers?

Common examples of microaggressions are:

Wow, you are so articulate! (Creates a feeling you had diminished expectations)

You aren't like other (fill in the blank, labeling, and stereotyping)

Your English is really great, where are you really from?

Your name is hard to pronounce can I call you something else?

I was just joking, don't be so sensitive.

I have a (fill in the blank) friend.

Your people must be so proud.

Telling a thin person they need to eat more.

Telling a larger person they need to exercise more.

Using outdated or offensive terminology.

Scoffing at someone who expresses their discomfort or hurt.

Let's say you made a throwaway comment you were completely unaware someone would find it demeaning but you've been called out for a microaggression, what do you do?

Take a breath before responding, your initial response may be to become angry, embarrassed and you may even feel physical symptoms such as your heart rate increasing.

Don't make it about you, remember that often the hurt party has an entire history's worth of unsaid context behind it. Your one remark isn't just one interpersonal interaction it's saying "you hurt me as others have hurt me in past."

Listen then apologize. Even if you didn't know this was a potential trigger for the other person, just practice curiosity and empathy, how can you learn from the experience? How can I respond to people as the individuals they are, practice the platinum rule - treat people the way THEY want to be treated.

And then let it go, if you over-apologize you can accidentally transfer your guilt to the hurt person.

You made a mistake or acted from a place of not understanding the full impact because it's not an experience you have lived. You are not a bad person.

Boundaries are not walls, they are a person's way of showing you where the door is to engage with them in a healthy manner.

How can dealership management teams work on preventing or handling microaggressions at work?

  1. Acknowledge it's a process and one webinar or training session will not get you there.

  2. Have difficult conversations about exclusion at the leadership level

  3. Do not expect the underrepresented employee to take on the responsibility of educating the workplace.

  4. Listen to the underrepresented employees, sometimes we have trouble listening to our own people but then trust an outside expert and that can invalidate your people further.

  5. Be clear to your people this is not "cancel culture" or a response to the media. This is a conversation about the specific behavior in your dealership and how real people are experiencing your workplace.

  6. Create safe spaces for people to share their experiences, questions, and needs.

  7. Don't tackle everything at once and prevent tone policing. This is an ongoing journey and shift in your culture.

If you would like more information on respectful workplace or sensitivity training at work please do not hesitate to contact our Professional Advisory Team at

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