Diversity & Inclusion

Walking Away with Papercuts: How to Deal with Microaggressions in the Workplace

By Amy Waninger • November 9, 2020

The following article is adapted from Amy C. Waninger’s book, Network Beyond Bias: Making Diversity a Competitive Advantage for Your Career.

Before we talk about microaggressions, let’s engage in a thought experiment:

Imagine for a moment that every time you interacted with a particular colleague (we’ll call them Pat), you walked away with a papercut. Every handshake, every meeting, every email or phone call results in a papercut, right in that webbing between your fingers.

The first time it happens, you may not realize what happened. The second time, you assume that it was an accident or a coincidence. The third time, you decide to speak up. Pat says you’re being too sensitive. Maybe, Pat says, it’s your fault you’re getting papercuts in painful places. The trend continues, ad infinitum.

LIght-colored paper doll cutouts on a dark backgroundAt what point would you begin to avoid Pat? When would you start to limit your interactions to “only when absolutely necessary”? And how long would it be before you decide that it is never, ever absolutely necessary?

If this colleague had an open position on their team, would you apply? Even if it were a promotion or your dream job? Would you encourage your friends to apply?

Probably not.

If Pat were your boss, would you file a formal complaint? Or would you feel silly because it’s “just” a papercut?

Microaggressions: Interpersonal Papercuts

Many people work with someone like “Papercut Pat.” Except, for them, the problem comes in the form of Pat’s verbal jabs, rolling eyes, derisive comments, insensitive nicknames, harmful assumptions, intrusive questions, or similar behaviors. Many people are someone’s Papercut Pat, and don’t even know it!

These behaviors, called microaggressions, are like emotional papercuts that we inflict upon one another, often without realizing it. We say things or make assumptions that are rooted in ignorance or obliviousness, if not outright hostility. But these seemingly small indignities have a big impact over time. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “death by a thousand cuts.”

Microaggressions can impact your career in negative ways, whether you’re the one inflicting them or the one wincing in emotional pain.

Examples of Microaggressions

These behaviors come in many forms, and, again, may not be intentional. But just like Pat’s papercuts, they take a toll.

  • Making fun of — or intentionally mispronouncing — someone’s name
  • Asking a female colleague who cares for her children when she travels on business
  • Telling a black person that they are “so articulate”
  • Asking an Asian-American where they’re “really” from
  • Asking trans people intrusive questions
  • Using derogatory terms to describe people who have disabilities
  • Asking older workers when they plan to retire

Someday, I’ll write “The Papercut Chronicles” to share some of my own experiences and transgressions. (In the meantime, I’d love to hear some of your “Did they really just say that?!?” moments.)

Are You a “Papercut Pat”?

Ask yourself the following questions, and answer them honestly:

  1. In the last six months, have I told someone they’re being “too sensitive” in response to something I said? Have I told anyone I work with that they “can’t take a joke”?
  2. Can I remember the last time I made a joke that targeted a particular gender or gender identity, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability?
  3. Have I recently made a generalization, realized I was in “mixed company,” and said, “Oh, I didn’t mean you“?
  4. Has anyone asked me to stop making certain types of comments or called me a bully?
  5. Do I feel defensive when someone points out my behavior?
  6. Do I feel like I am better / smarter / more competent than others and therefore have a right to denigrate them?
  7. Do I regularly exclude certain people from discussions so I won’t have to watch what I say?

If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, I suggest you do some soul searching and make some apologies. Ask someone you trust to watch your behavior and call you out on it if it continues.

Do You Work with “Papercut Pat”?

When people make honest mistakes because they just don’t realize they’re being disrespectful, give them the benefit of the doubt. Use structured, constructive feedback to explain the impact of their behavior so they don’t repeat the mistake.

On the other hand, if Pat’s behavior is intentional, or if it persists after you’ve asked for it to stop, you may need to escalate your complaints to your manager, Pat’s supervisor, or your Human Resources department. Before you escalate, consider the power (and leadership) you can demonstrate by standing up to workplace bullies, especially when you see them abusing someone else. Let’s all stick together and be strong for one another!

Here are some things you can say:

  • “What you said was disrespectful. I hope you don’t really feel that way.”
  • “You owe everyone here an apology for making us feel uncomfortable / devalued.”
  • “I have a tremendous amount of respect for [name of colleague], and I will not let you talk to/about them that way.”
  • “Your behavior is unacceptable. If you refuse to show everyone the professional respect we deserve, then we will go on without you.”

Have you dealt with a Papercut Pat? How did you handle it?

About The Author

Amy C. Waninger, CEO of Lead at Any Level LLC, works with organizations that want to build leadership bench strength for a sustainable competitive advantage. Her book, Network Beyond Bias, is available online and in print.