Discrimination Based on Micro-Aggressions

Steven Cesare, Ph.D.

A business owner from Colorado called me recently to say that he just received a complaint from one of his field employees alleging discrimination based on a series of micro-aggressions that other field employees directed toward him. As a premise, a micro-aggression is defined as any statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a protected class (e.g., race, gender, religion). Taken aback by this claim, the business owner sought direction from me about how to handle this delicate situation carefully.

First things first, I suggested that the owner begin the documentation process immediately by having a formal two-on-one meeting with the complainant to gather relevant details concerning the alleged micro-aggressions. To that end, the owner and the Office Manager met with the employee who stated several employees levied the following micro-aggressions against him:

  • Fellow employees rolled their eyes at him when he spoke to them;
  • An employee offered a part of his lunch to the other crew members, but not to the complainant;
  • Employees made sarcastic comments to the employee; and
  • Some employees laughed at the complainant behind his back.

With the micro-aggressions now identified, coupled with the names of the employees who allegedly performed them, the owner could now conduct the second phase of the process: the investigation.

Per the investigation, I initially recommended that the owner verify that the company employee handbook contained a prohibition against micro-aggressions as part of its Anti-Harassment Policy. Next, I suggested the owner verify that this type of conduct was actually stipulated within the company’s Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) policy. Then, the owner was told to conduct a series of two-on-one interviews with each identified employee individually, to gather his/her side of the story regarding the claims made. Upon hearing each employee’s recounting of the allegation, I urged the owner to remind each employee of the company’s Anti-Harassment Policy and how such activity may be declared insensitive, discriminatory, or even classified as bullying. I also suggested that the owner reminds each employee that he/she is a role model of the company culture and accordingly, must demonstrate appropriate behaviors at all times. And last, the owner was directed to remind each employee against retaliating against the complainant in any way.

The investigative interviews yielded unanimity of the claims made, with the employees stating they did not intend their comments or actions to be taken so seriously by the complainant. Nevertheless, each employee received verbal coaching documenting their role in this process, which was filed in their personnel folder.

Third, I proposed that the owner conduct a refresher training on Anti-Harassment to all employees reminding them of the company policy, discriminatory behavior, micro-aggressions, bullying, the grievance process, and the company’s prohibition against retaliation. I also suggested that this training not single out any employee (e.g., complainant, or perpetrators), but simply be given as a periodic reminder (i.e., establishing the possibility of an affirmative defense) of appropriate behaviors necessary to create and sustain a professional company culture.

If you have any questions or comments about this topic or anything else related to human resources, simply call me at (760) 685-3800.

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Steve Cesare Ph.D.

has more than 25 years of Human Resources experience. Prior to joining The Harvest Group, Steve worked with Bemus Landscape, Jack in the Box, the County of San Diego, Citicorp, and NASA. Steve earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Old Dominion University, and has authored 68 human resources journal articles. As a member of The Harvest Group, Steve’s areas of expertise include: staffing, legal compliance, wage and hour issues, training, and employee safety.  Read Steve's full bio.