Recognizing and Investigating Racial Microaggressions in the Workplace

Published on: July 6, 2022

As our awareness of racial discrimination grows, we should all be turning our attention to microaggressions.

It’s an interesting exercise to read older decisions of Human Rights tribunals, and to see how discrimination and harassment in the workplace are presented. In the 1996 decision Naraine v. Ford Motor Co.1, for example, Mr. Naraine brought a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal alleging that he and other Black co-workers had regularly been referred to by the “N-word” in the workplace, including being called a “Lazy N-” and seeing “N-s go home” written on the bathroom walls.

When questioned at the Tribunal, several co-workers described the comments as being “just in fun,” “comical”, and “terms of endearment.” During his testimony, Mr. Naraine was reduced to tears as he described his shame at being exposed to these hateful comments.

It has been over 25 years since Mr. Naraine told his story to the Human Rights Tribunal, and of course, we would like to think we have come a long way, perhaps even to the point where racism in the workplace is no longer a concern. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Microaggressions Are Still Commonplace

Many recent studies and legal cases show that racism is still prevalent in our society, although perhaps not in its most overt form. For example, a survey2 of Indigenous Canadian university students found that they were subjected to a multitude of microaggressions on campus, including negative assumptions about their intelligence and racial segregation.

Another recent study noted that elevated anxiety levels among Black Canadians can be attributed – at least partly – to exposure to racial microaggressions.3 Lawsuits based on microaggressions have received attention from the media.

Two Indigenous employees of Indian Oil and Gas launched a suit4 against the federal agency last year, alleging that they experienced harmful microaggressions, ranging from racist jokes to lack of career advancement. Tesla has also been in the news for the multiple allegations of racist microaggressions against Black workers being brought forward.

What we can take from these stories is that racism in the workplace is not gone; it might just be more subtle than it was 25 years ago.

Recognizing and Addressing Microaggressions

There is no complete list of racial microaggressions that employers and workplace investigators can be on the lookout for. Still, there are certain signs of being aware of, whether your employees work from home or in a physical office:

  1. Commentary about how someone is different: If employees work from home, this can be seen in casual comments such as, “What’s that weird thing in the background?” during a virtual meeting, referring to an art piece or religious statue in an employee’s home. In the physical workplace, it could be comments about the “strange” food an employee eats or how they dress differently from everyone else.
  2. Segregation/isolation: This can manifest as an employee not being invited to social gatherings (either virtual or in-person), being left out of conversations, or not being asked for their input on projects.
  3. Backhanded compliments: Offering compliments with negative undertones can happen in the physical workplace and during virtual meetings. For example, telling a Black person that they speak intelligently can have an underlying message that, surprisingly, they are intelligent. Telling a Chinese person they are “different from other Asians” implies that all people from Asia are expected to be similar.

The first step to addressing microaggressions is acknowledging that racism is still widespread in our society. Only then can employers and workplace investigators delve into what microaggressions look like in the workplace and the impact they have.

1Naraine v. Ford Motor Co. of Canada (No. 4), 1996 CanLII 20059 (ON HRT)
2Canel-Cinarbas, D. & Yohani, S. (2019). Indigenous Canadian university students’ experiences of microaggressions. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 41: 41-60. 
3Kogan, C.S. et al. (2022). A significant role for everyday racial discrimination and racial microaggressions. Journal of Affective Disorders, 308: 545-553. 

If you are interested in learning more about microaggressions, inclusive language, bias, and other aspects of equity, diversity and inclusion – and how to investigate allegations related to them – consider signing up for our upcoming Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices in Workplace Conflict Resolution & Investigations online course.