Cara is a human resource director at a Chicago-based creative marketing firm that prides itself on how well it treats its employees. Excellent benefits and a strong practice of flexibility and autonomy, along with a keen focus on career and professional development, are core cultural values the company generously communicates and celebrates.
An exception is Martin, the head of the digital design team, who has a reputation as a passive-aggressive leader. The team historically keeps to itself, but one day two members of Martin's team request a meeting with Cara to tell her about the many microaggressions taking place in the unit. The employees, who are both women of color, state that they can't take it anymore and they'll quit if something isn't done to address the issue.
What Are Microaggressions?
"Microaggressions can be generally defined as a statement, action or incident regarded as indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination [toward] members of a marginalized group, such as a racial or ethnic minority," explained Laura Crawshaw, founder and president of The Boss Whispering Institute in Portland, Ore., and author of Grow Your Spine and Manage Abrasive Leadership Behavior: A Guide for Those Who Manage Bosses that Bully (Executive Insight Press, 2023).
"Further, passive-aggressive behavior can be defined as a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them," said Crawshaw, who has a Ph.D. in human and organizational systems. "There's often a disconnect between what a person who exhibits passive-aggressive behavior says and what he or she does."
In this case, Martin makes comments about certain employees—particularly about the two women of color on his team. For example, both women have indirectly found out that he criticizes their work in front of other members of the team when they aren't present. He also tends to give them the cold shoulder and silent treatment during meetings.
One employee said Martin fails to even look at her or recognize her presence when others are in the room. When they've tried to approach him individually and together, he simply dismisses them by saying he's fine and leaving it at that. Recently, he made a subtle snub about one of employee's weight and insinuated she should go on a diet. He doesn't say such things about other team members who are male or white.
The two employees came to HR together to support one another and insist that Martin stops his disrespectful behavior.
These types of behaviors can create a toxic culture that kills morale, drives down productivity and leads to a psychologically unsafe work environment.
"Whether you're looking at a management or communication style that involves subtle slights, snubs [or] insults or inappropriate sexual, racial or ethnic comments or behaviors, the net result on the team and organization will include alienation and attrition, disrupted productivity, reputational damage, and unwanted civil litigation," Crawshaw said. "It doesn't matter why leaders behave badly—it only matters that the organization intervenes and holds them accountable for their conduct."
HR Teams Up with Supervisor
What can those interventions look like? Forming a partnership between HR and the problematic employee's supervisor is a great start.
"HR can't do this alone, because HR doesn't have the authority to manage other managers' employees," said Paul Heredia, chief human resource officer at Citrus Valley Health Partners in Covina, Calif. "So, Cara partnering with Martin's superior and presenting a united front makes the most sense. It provides a consistent message since both operational leadership and HR are involved, and it prevents Martin from 'splitting the parents' by running to HR if he doesn't like what his supervisor has to say or running to his supervisor if he doesn't like HR's message."
Educating Martin can go a long way toward raising awareness and increasing his self-perception of how he may be coming across to others. First, when presenting information like this together with Martin's supervisor, Cara can expect a self-defense mechanism ("Everyone's being too sensitive. I'm just trying to get the work done.") or sense of contrition ("I didn't realize that's how I'm coming across. That's not who I am or who I want to be.") to kick in.
Depending on Martin's initial response, Cara and Martin's supervisor have an opportunity to move the conversation in a different direction. For example, their response might sound like this:
Cara: Martin, saying that everyone's being too sensitive misses the point of this conversation. We didn't call this meeting for you to complain about your people's oversensitivity. We're here because members of your team are calling out to us for help, and you have to assume responsibility for this perception problem that you've created and make big changes to turn this situation around. We're here to ensure that you understand that you're equally responsible for both your conduct and your performance.
Martin's supervisor: It's not just about what you're getting done but how you're getting things done through your people. We're here to make you aware of this, to partner with you and to gain your input. But make no mistake—things will have to change immediately to ensure that you're in the right role, you're leading effectively and the people who report to you can do their best work every day with peace of mind. To that end, we need to reset expectations with you right now to address the subtle slights, snubs and insults that you may be giving off, while likewise ensuring that all of your team members feel heard and respected.
Cara: Martin, we're not surprised to hear you say that. A lot of managers can end up getting short with their people and showing signs of outward frustration when the work volume is too high or the pressure to deliver gets too intense. They say emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor and manage your own emotions in order to monitor and manage others' emotions. We need to determine how to raise your awareness about how you may be coming across at times to particular members of your team.
Martin's supervisor: And we have to ensure that there will be no further complaints of this type from your team, or it could jeopardize your position with the company. We're not willing to assume any type of legal liability or civil litigation because one of our managers has a hard time not controlling what he says to two members of his team who are both minority and female.
Cara: We think it might be a good idea for you to speak with our employee assistance program provider for one or more confidential targeted coaching sessions with a qualified counselor who can help you with this. Likewise, I'd be willing to help you with that as your internal HR resource. But be aware that we will be following up with your team to ensure you have addressed these concerns, and any further complaints along these lines could result in disciplinary action or even outright termination. Do you understand the gravity of the situation?
Make Consequences Clear
These two responses are fundamentally different in that they approach the problem from varying positions—depending on whether the employee has been self-defensive or agreeable. "While you can't know what's truly going on in people's hearts, you can set your expectations appropriately, regardless of the underlying motives or rationale, by educating the manager on the risks involved in matters like these," Heredia said.
People who exhibit microaggression or passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace are not doing so because they feel powerful. Instead, they typically feel threatened, vulnerable and weak. They need a better way to achieve their objectives and find balance, and a management intervention with the individual's supervisor and HR in the same room is a great place to start. It draws a line in the sand that delineates a new beginning and creates an important record should the problem continue. It also resets expectations and emphasizes the consequences involved so the individual leader sees the personal benefit of changing their ways.
"Workplace civility and antiharassment policies won't stop toxic leadership behaviors," Crawshaw said. "Management training won't stop it. And HR, on its own, cannot stop it. But combining forces and using all the tools at your disposal is key to successful toxic leadership turnarounds.
"Martin was shown respect by informing him of the negative perceptions and holding him accountable for acceptable conduct," she continued. "It's his turn to demonstrate respect towards his team members. That's when the healing and turnaround can begin. And if necessary, it's where the disciplinary action can follow, since verbally communicating unacceptable conduct along with future expectations is the foundation of workplace due process that can ultimately justify a termination for cause."
Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com) is a frequent contributor to SHRM Online and has served in a range of senior HR roles at such companies as Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Time Warner and City of Hope Medical Center. He's a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau, a corporate leadership trainer, a certified executive coach and the author of the five-book Paul Falcone Workplace Leadership Series (HarperCollins Leadership and Amacom). His other bestsellers include 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees, 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems, 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.