Employment & Labour

Microaggression is ‘like a virus’ creating toxic workplaces

By Kathy Rumleski, AdvocateDaily.com Contributor

When a complaint about racism in the workplace has been lodged, it often stems from a litany of microaggressions, says Toronto employment lawyer John Donkor.

“Microaggression can be in the form of implicit comments, gestures, attitudes and stereotypes. For example, one of the more common ones is assuming that someone who is black listens to rap music or is good at basketball,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com.

An article published online by Fortune magazine, suggests 68 per cent of American workers consider microaggression a serious problem.

It is no different in Canada, says Donkor, principal of Donkor Employment & Labour Law.

“You’re starting to see a higher volume of complaints of this nature brought to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, in part because of the recognition of anti-black racism,” he says.

Donkor says he frequently uncovers microaggression during the workplace investigations he conducts on behalf of employers.

“Microaggression is one of the hallmarks of anti-black racism,” he says. “People will often brush aside microaggression saying, ‘It was just a joke. I was just being playful,’ but these comments stem from a bias.”

Donkor says people who are subjected to microaggression can have a hard time characterizing it, but it can be just as distressing as a racial slur.

“Microaggression accrues and becomes macro, and it’s a problem. It often results in bouts of frustration, complaints and ultimately people leaving their employment,” he says.

Donkor says he has heard microaggression referred to as an invisible gas because these messages internalize and can be harmful to an employee — changing his or her thinking and actions.

“It’s important to recognize microaggression because it shows how embedded racism and discrimination can be from an institutional perspective,” he says.

Creating awareness of microaggression is vital l because the offences can ultimately lead to a poisonous work environment, Donkor says, adding it can be a challenging concept to explain to employees.

“You need subject matter experts to come into the workplace and provide training,” he says, suggesting companies start the process by educating HR professionals and then managers.

“Awareness in a workplace is the first step,” Donkor says. “Once the HR department understands it, they can provide functional guidance to management, who can then recognize it and root it out.

“After management is trained, there becomes a culture shift because there is less tolerance of it in the workplace.”

When microaggression has entered a workplace and an investigation is necessary, a company should select a skilled investigator who the ability that allows him or her to mitigate bias and perceptions of unfairness, he says.

“It’s also crucial that investigators carry a life lens with respect to anti-black racism or sexual bias, for example, and the microaggression associated with it,” Donkor says.

Not everyone will understand the intricacies of certain forms of microaggression, he says.

“Microaggression is like a virus, it evolves and finds ways of resisting traditional remedies, so a workplace investigator needs to fully understand the complexities of it,” says Donkor.

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