While many leaders have ramped up efforts to make their organizations equitable for members of marginalized groups, evidence shows that Black employees continue to experience disrespect in the workplace. Since Black professionals face a bind in dealing with racialized comments, organizations need to take responsibility for preventing microaggressions and relieving their Black employees of the emotional labor that comes with them. The author’s experiment shows that the ways Black workers respond to competency microaggressions are complex and not only hurt the recipient, but also how they interact in teams.
Just 3% of Black professionals report feeling ready to return to in-person work as compared to 21% of their white peers. One reason is that remote work has buffered them from microaggressions: intentional or unintentional behaviors that communicate negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.
While many organizations have tried to address workplace microaggressions in the wake of the heightened visibility of racial inequity, many efforts have missed the mark. For example, Black women continue to experience the highest rates of disrespect, such as demeaning remarks. This is despite the fact that 80% of white men and women identify as allies to people of color at work and would likely be surprised to learn that they may be engaging in some of these negative behaviors.
There is a gap between how folks intend to treat people of color and what is actually happening. In order to make more progress toward racial equity, leaders need to understand how these “harmless” comments affect Black employees’ workplace behavior and emotions in real time. Most studies of microaggressions rely on accounts of past events, which may be affected by recall bias: the tendency for people to forget or omit details of previous events. Experiments avoid that issue by collecting how people respond to events at the moment.
Opening the Black Box
As a case in point, Edith Cooper, a successful board member and CEO, was told by a white male colleague, “There’s no chance now [for a board seat] for the next 20 years. All they want are women. Edith, you must be in great demand — as a Black woman.”
These types of slights are known as “competency microaggressions.” They’re commonly directed at Black and female employees and reveal low expectations of their abilities, beliefs that they’re “affirmative action” hires, or surprise when they demonstrate competency. There is ample research on Black employees’ experiences with racial microaggressions like these that show their harm, but these studies rely on accounts of past experiences. In my new research, I set out to discover the actual impact — in the moment — of competency microaggressions on Black workers.
In order to gather empirical data on what many call the “black box,” or the hidden mechanisms of inequality, I conducted an experiment with 300 Black participants to test how experiencing a competency microaggression affected them. Participants were recruited from online crowdsourcing survey platform Prolific. Each completed a task with a partner whom they believed were real but was actually computer simulated. Before beginning the task, participants were instructed that some teams would be assigned a leader and that teams with no leader would have equal influence in decision making.
Some participants received this message from their partner: “They’ll probably pick you as the leader cause you’re Black lol.” This type of comment is a common competencyaggression that Black employees experience, where success is attributed micro to their race in a act of affirmative action. Such statements are often worded as a joke in order to reduce the chance that they’ll be perceived as hostile or threatening.
After assigning all teams to have equal influence in decision making, I then evaluated participants’ emotional reactions, captured what they said in response, and measured how the comment affected how they interacted with their partner.*
The Real-Time Impact of Microaggressions
The results demonstrate that the ways Black workers respond to competency microaggressions are complex and not only hurt the recipient, but also how they interact in teams.
Immediately after experiencing the microaggression, participants rated how angry, shocked, and ashamed they felt. Participants who experienced the microaggression reported significantly greater negative emotions than those in the control group (ie, those who did not receive the message from their partner).
However, their responses to their partner didn’t necessarily reflect their negative emotions. Instead, they were more likely to reply to their partners with comments that were conflict avoidant. This is consistent with the finding that most Black professionals want to avoid being associated with negative stereotypes of the “angry Black person” or being seen interpersonally as difficult to work with. Commonly, they utilized humor. As one participant wrote: “Lol, we will see.” The minority of people who didn’t use conflict-avoidant language either used probing techniques by asking their partner to clarify the statement or directly expressed that they didn’t think the comment was funny. It’s interesting, but not surprising, that only two participants mentioned to their partner that the comment was racist, given Black people’s preference for showing emotional restraint in response to uncomfortable, racialized interactions.
All of these points to the tremendous emotional labor that Black professionals perform on a daily basis to manage what others perceive as harmless comments. While performing emotional labor in response to racialized interactions is not new, these findings show what that looks like in real time. When race is brought up in a professional setting in appropriate ways, the pressure is often on Black people to quickly find a way to ease the uncomfortable interaction for themselves and the perpetrator.
The Cost to Teams
My study also revealed that competing microaggressions can lead to less-effective team interactions. Healthy deference plays an important role in teams because it fosters group cooperation: When one person is seen as the legitimate leader, the others go along in order to be seen as reasonable and contribute to the group’s collective tasks. Deferring to someone else’s ideas demonstrates that you believe that their contributions are valuable, but it also comes at a personal cost because your ideas are not chosen. Further, when race or gender consistently drives who gets shown more deference, teams can suffer. For example, when male-dominated cultures normalize women deferring to men, teams not only miss out on women’s contributions, but they end up overlooking women for promotions.
As it turns out, microaggressions seriously affect deference behavior. Participants experiencing the microaggression deferred less to their team member because of how negatively they felt toward them. In other words, the negative emotion they felt limited their ability to use a more objective rationale for decision making. This can have a serious impact on how teams function and how those who experience microaggressions are evaluated. However, deferring more is not a better solution because it leaves racially based behavior unchallenged and results in them not being able to gain influence. Thus, there is a double bind for Black employees where the way they respond to microaggressions has the potential to backfire on them no matter how they respond.
At the end of the experiment, participants had the opportunity to share their thoughts about their partner with me. I found that only 29% of those who experienced the competency microaggression actually reported it. While we know that microaggressions are underreported, this number is especially surprising given the context. Participants in my study didn’t face the same potential backlash or loss to their employment for reporting that workers in real-world organizations do. So, the question becomes: How much lower can we expect this number to be in a real organization?
While many leaders have ramped up efforts to make their organizations equitable for members of marginalized groups, evidence shows that Black employees continue to experience disrespect in the workplace. Since Black professionals face a bind in dealing with racialized comments, organizations need to take responsibility for preventing microaggressions and relieving their Black employees of the emotional labor that comes with them.
* Author’s note: To minimize any harm to study participants, they received information on mental health resources for the Black community. They were also informed about the true purpose of the study and the intended benefits of their participation.