How To Handle Workplace Microagressions

How To Handle Workplace Microagressions


By Guest

Published June 2016

You're confident. You're self-assured. You're a rockstar. You look good, feel good and even smell good. You spent your formidable years getting good grades, excelling at sports and hobbies and might have even been lucky enough to be one of the more popular guys in school. You were funny, charming and "cute". Now you have a job in the field you've always wanted, a nice apartment filled with the trendiest furniture and latest gadgets, but something isn't quite right. Your work ethic is unmatchable, your resume flawless, your handshake rock solid, but you notice that the way people interact with you day to day "differs" a bit from that of other men with similar qualifications. You end up doing some investigating and introspection.


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Welcome to the world of being a short guy. You made it through the occasional teasing and ridicule in school that everyone dealt with (albeit served differently) and had the epiphany slightly before adulthood that it would all be over when you hit that magical age where men all over the country have to sign up for the selective service (Yes, because everyone becomes mentally mature and compassionate once they become 18). While the world of work is a different beast than grade school or college, the tendency for people to try to dominate situations and be a little douchebaggy is about the same. In this piece, I'll share with you some tips I used to navigate the job-o-sphere to establish boundaries and elicit respect all while maintaining integrity and a great rapport with my colleagues.


Personal Space

I had this guy I used to work with who was about 6'6. We worked in the same department. He was liked by everyone. He'd be the first one to be invited to gatherings outside work by colleagues from other departments and to have one on one chats with managers. He was liked so much that a lot of his malicious behavior went unnoticed, that is except by everyone who had to work with him daily or whose work was affected by his output. If he couldn't get his way, he would get hot-tempered and slowly invade your personal space to sway your stance. Interestingly enough, former president Lyndon B. Johnson was reported using this very same tactic with much success. Contemporaries called it, "The Treatment".


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Humor Followed By A Stern Demeanor Can Be Effective | Source: Fox Television


In the case of my coworker, this had less to do with his size and more his attitude, but being shorter than average, people will use their size to intimidate you. For this type of situation, I mix a bit of humor with a stern response (an old episode of the TV show "Martin" comes to mind). I usually lean back and say "Whoa!" to clearly convey to the person that they're in my perimeter and then follow it with something like, "I really get uncomfortable with people in my space, may you please move back a little". This is usually very effective. If they continue to do it, their behavior can be reported as workplace intimidation and bullying. Here you maintain your frame, draw boundaries and give warning all in a professional manner. 



You've all heard them. I'm referring to when people make general off-the-cuff comments about your size or how your size in their mind theoretically impedes or enhances your abilities. Sometimes they're innocent from the perspective of the one who initiated them, while other times they're said on purpose with the intent to demean. 


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At my last job, a female colleague told me she was amazed that someone "so small" could complete a particular task (never mind that I was taller than her). Forget about the fact that the task was paperwork related. Another colleague (male) at the same job in front of other employees referenced my height when joking that I was frustrated at the incompetence of some of the lazier colleagues. In these type of situations, I typically respond with something along the lines of "what did you mean by that?" or in the case of the latter rebuke them with something like, "That's a stereotype. If I joked that you're frustrated with X would it be okay?" (follow it with a chuckle). Forcing people to reflect on their actions in a non-confrontational way is usually enough to make them back off. 


The Opposite Sex

This here is a fine line. With employer support for women in high gear, even the lightest non-combative retorts can be misconstrued as misogynistic, so tread lightly as one misinterpreted comment can lead to a Human Resources onslaught. 

When I worked in retail many moons ago, I once had a female colleague not much shorter than myself refer to me as "little man", typically with male colleagues scratching their heads ("you're not that short" would usually be the response) repeatedly for laughs. The same colleague would ask very tall customers to stand next to me for height comparisons.' Other typical comments would be along the lines of boastingly stating dating preferences with in an earshot of me while referencing past dates with taller gentlemen or lamenting at dates when they happened to be taller than she hoped.


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I personally take no issue with a woman having preferences (and neither should you), however that type of conversation is inappropriate on the job (especially if you work in the public sector) and if it is interfering with work or morale, it should be bought to the attention of the instigator. When approaching women about this sort of thing, I make sure I am stern and professional while framing my stance from their point of view so they can reflect. My famous go-to line which I used while working in Education was "People come in all shapes, sizes and colors and no one should be insulted in the workplace because of something they have little or no control over". Sometimes I follow that with, "Would it be okay if I made fun of your size or skin color?". This is rhetorical of course, don't return fire unless its after-hours and in a social setting only. Even then, be careful.


But You're So Uptight! 

And I have to be when it comes to disposition in the workplace. Short Men unlike other groups receive no type of legal or workplace protection and are expected to deal with the manure flung at them no matter how hard it's thrown. Part of it is that society expects men to maintain frame no matter the situation with any other response suggesting weakness, so men no matter how tall or short they are have to navigate these type of situations in such a way where others learn their limits and how to behave appropriately when interacting with you. Remember, you set the tone and will deal with what you allow. Being the stereotypical light-hearted short man will only elicit more sketchy conduct from those who you work with.


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As for after-hours? This is up to you. I am a self-professed comedian and am quick with jokes and enjoy trading insults as I am witty and can hold my own. Through my own wit, people also learn their limits. You'll often find that people will try to knock you down because they are dealing with their own insecurities. Not everyone is this way though and you have to know when it is appropriate. 

When I was a grad student, one of my professors who happened to be gay would sometimes refer to himself as a f***** (his words). During one class, a student in the class asked, "You seem to be comfortable with that word. Are you okay with other people calling you that when you joke around?". His facial expression immediately hardened and he replied, "It's only okay when say it, just like when a woman refers to herself as a b****". As always err on the side of caution, and most importantly, know your audience. 


Be Proactive!

Heightism, that is bias toward people because of their height and the social baggage that comes along with it is as bad as any other prejudice at the fundamental level because like other "isms" it does play a part in inhibiting a person's full potential. Like John F. Kennedy once said when referring to inclusion, "no talent should be wasted". As such, be proactive in establishing limits and making your workplace experience one that is positive and fulfilling. 


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