They may not be easy to spot, but their impact can be significant. In addition to the personal sting that results, microaggressions contribute to a decline in U.S. workforce productivity that results in an annual loss of between $450 billion and $550 billion, according to Gallup. These slights are often difficult to identify, but we are becoming increasingly aware of them and the negative impacts they can have on workplace dynamics.
Today’s workforce is made up of multiple generations, and the age gap may be putting older workers at risk for being the targets of age-related microaggressions. Here, we’ll take a look at what microaggressions are, their impact on older workers, and how you can help everyone in your workforce avoid them.
What Are Microaggressions?
According to SocialWork@Simmons, microaggressions are “subtle, often nuanced, verbal or behavioral slights, snubs, or insults that can be intentional, but are often unintentional. They communicate negative, pejorative, and sometimes hostile messages to others solely based on their membership in a marginalized group. Microaggressions may devalue another individual’s sense of dignity and worth, may demean them on a personal or group level, and may communicate that this individual is in some way ‘less than.’”
Because microaggressions are so subtle, many perpetrators don’t have a conscious understanding of the impact of their words – or how painful that impact may be. When the slight is pointed out, many will express disbelief, since the negativity of microaggressions is is typically unintentional.
Although we’re framing this particular discussion in the context of age-related microaggressions, these negative slights frequently impact a wide spectrum of individuals based on gender, culture, heritage, and other forms of diversity.
The Impact of Microaggressions on Older Workers
Starting with the hypothesis that “misperceptions about the capabilities of older workers take the form of microaggressions,” researchers at the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College proposed that these unintentional offenses have the same self-esteem eroding effect on older workers as they do members of racial minorities, leading to negative work-related outcomes.
To examine the impact of microaggressions on older workers, the Boston College researchers evaluated internal and external predictors of the mental health of employees and their scores related to work engagement. Researchers found that “negative attitudes toward late-career workers do in fact affect these workers’ engagement with their jobs and ultimately their mental health.”
How Can Microaggressions Be Avoided?
With an emphasis on self-reflection, empathy, and a willingness to address biases and how they impact others, individuals can increase their self-awareness and take responsibility for their actions – which can ultimately lead to fewer microaggressions in the workplace.
The Center on Aging and Work recommends that employers take specific steps to create work environments that protect older works from microaggressions. These steps include:
- Gathering information formally or informally from employees to assess how prevalent microaggressions may be.
- Training supervisors and organizing team-building experiences to foster an ethic of inclusion.
- Considering job redesign to create a better fit for the needs and preferences of older workers.
The Benefits of Inclusion?
Dealing with microaggressions of any type is certainly good for employee morale, which means it’s also good for business. The benefits of inclusion are numerous, since each generation in the workforce has its own needs that can be met by fostering such an environment. In particular, many older workers long to leave a legacy when they retire, so helping to keep them engaged and build mentoring relationships with employees in the younger generations will benefit everyone involved.
By increasing awareness of both the presence and impact of microaggressions in the workplace — and creating an environment of inclusion — you can help your ensure that every member of your multigenerational workforce receives the honor and respect they deserve.