Understanding Microaggressions at Work

They might be well-intentioned, but they’re hurting your employees.

Written by Jeff Rumage
Understanding Microaggressions at Work
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Brennan Whitfield | Mar 05, 2024

Microaggressions are the subtle, commonplace remarks, assumptions and actions that insult and invalidate people from traditionally underrepresented groups. Microaggressions are often rooted in unconscious biases, so the offender may not realize the impact of their words or actions. In some cases, they may have been trying to compliment the person — not offend them. 

What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are the everyday insensitive comments or discriminatory behaviors aimed at members of marginalized groups. They might not be as obvious as a slur or epithet, but microaggressions perpetuate stereotypes and biased assumptions, and their cumulative impact can cause real harm.

“Sometimes microaggressions actually sound positive when they’re being spoken,” Colin Dinnie, Wistia’s DEI program manager, told Built In. “But the driver behind it is that you are either othering or further marginalizing the recipient of that language or behavior.”

This can look like a man not believing his female coworker when she says she is a software engineer, or a white employee telling a coworker of color how “good their English is.” No matter how they occur, microaggressions have a substantial impact on affected employees and the overall workplace environment.

 

What Are Microaggressions?

Psychology professor Derald Wing Sue at Teachers College at Columbia University defined microaggressions as:

“The everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

Microaggressions can take the form of well-meaning, but ultimately back-handed, questions or comments. A microaggression could also assume that a person from an underrepresented group — particularly women and people of color — are in a position of lower status, education and expertise.

In some instances, a microaggression may seem harmless when removed from the context of lived experiences and historical inequity. The insidious nature of microaggressions might cause those on the receiving end to question their own experience and wonder if they are overreacting. 

Managers and HR professionals might also find it difficult to pinpoint the offense — particularly if it’s connected to a specific lived experience that they don’t relate to.

“So many of these things that happen are so small — it’s just a word, a sentence or a comment — and they happen so frequently that you can’t put out an HR edict that covers them all,” Suzanne Wertheim, a linguistic anthropologist and founder of Worthwhile Research and Consulting, told Built In.

More DEI CoverageWhat are Employee Resource Groups?

 

What Do Microaggressions Look Like?

Forms of Microaggressions

Microaggressions primarily take three forms, according to the study led by Sue and co-authored by researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University.

  • Microassaults: A person purposefully insults another person based on their identity. This could include a joke that is knowingly offensive or the use of racial epithets.
  • Microinsults: A person demeans another person due to a bias, either intentionally or unintentionally. This might include ignoring an idea from a person of color, which implies that their contribution is unimportant. 
  • Microinvalidations: A person makes a statement or action that can “exclude, negate or nullify” a person’s thoughts, feelings or experiences. For example, when a white person tells a person of color that they “don’t see color,” they are invalidating that person’s lived experience as a minority. 

Types of Microaggressions

Microaggressions also present themselves in three different ways: verbally, behaviorally and environmentally.

  • Verbal: A person says something that offends an underrepresented group of people.
  • Behavioral: A person insults someone from a marginalized identity through their behavior.
  • Environmental: An organization creates a work environment that excludes underrepresented employees through lack of accommodations or representation.

 

Examples of Microaggressions

Microaggressions can vary in nature depending on a recipient’s demographics, such as race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and more. Here’s some examples of how microaggressions manifest.

Race/Ethnicity

  • A white employee tells a Black coworker in a surprised tone of voice how articulate they are.
  • An Asian employee tells a coworker they are from Ohio, and the coworker asks them “where they are really from.”
  • A Latino employee who enters the office is stopped and asked to show their company ID badge.

Gender

  • A male manager asks the only woman on the team to take notes during a meeting. 
  • A male software engineer assumes a woman on the product team is a designer.
  • An employee doesn’t use the correct pronouns for a transgender or nonbinary coworker.

Sexual Orientation

  • Someone says “That’s so gay” when talking about something they don’t like.
  • An employee asks their female coworker if she has a husband, rather than a partner.
  • An employee makes a face or abruptly changes the topic when a gay colleague talks about his husband.

Age 

  • A younger employee assumes that an older coworker won’t understand or be able to learn a new software tool.
  • A younger employee speaks slower and louder when explaining a concept with an older coworker, even though they don’t have any hearing issues.
  • An employee asks a new hire if they are an intern.

Disability

  • An employee jokes that they are “so OCD” because they made a spreadsheet. 
  • An employee crouches down to eye level to speak to a coworker using a wheelchair.

Religion

  • A company schedules an important meeting on a Jewish or Indian holiday.
  • An employee wishes their Muslim coworker a “Merry Christmas.”

More DEI Coverage50 Diversity in the Workplace Statistics to Know

 

How to Respond to a Microaggression

Many people report feeling confused or speechless by a microaggression, which can make it hard to determine if a microaggression occurred, whether it was intentional and what to do next. Here are some ways to respond:

1. Evaluate the Situation

Take a step back to validate your feelings and think about what a meaningful resolution would look like. You could address that person directly, or you could ask your manager or HR to speak to them. You also don’t have to respond at all. 

If the microaggression was severe, you (or a workplace ally) may step in to flag the behavior in real time. If emotions are running high, though, it may be more appropriate to address it at a later date.

2. Acknowledge the Offense

You could also try employing what Sue calls “microinterventions.” He suggests making the “invisible” element of microaggressions visible by asking the offender to clarify what they meant or by describing what just occurred. A more direct approach is to express disagreement, like saying “ouch” or shaking your head disapprovingly.

3. Educate the Offender

Ultimately, the goal of a microintervention is to prevent a repeat offense, so it can be helpful for the victim, an ally or a HR manager to explain why the offender’s words or actions were harmful. The offender has probably told you they didn’t mean to cause offense, which you can acknowledge while also redirecting the conversation to address the impact of their words or actions.

 

What to Do if You’ve Committed a Microaggression

People who are accused of microaggressions often go on the defensive. After all, nobody with good intentions wants to offend another person, much less think of themselves as a bigot. But if you realize you committed a microaggression, consider these actions:

1. Listen to the Offended Party

Pause, take a deep breath and consider where the other person is coming from. Listen to what they have to say instead of thinking about your response.

2. Don’t Get Defensive

You should avoid saying things like “I’m sorry you took it that way,” which only invalidates the other person’s emotions and shows that you aren’t trying to understand their perspective. The same can be said about sayings like “I don’t see color,” which perpetuate a myth of colorblindness instead of acknowledging the realities of racial inequity and the lived experiences of your coworker.

3. Apologize

If you didn’t mean to hurt the other person’s feelings, you can tell them that, but know that the intent of your comment is not as important as the impact it had on them. Think of it like stepping on another person’s foot: Just because you didn’t mean to step on their foot doesn’t change the fact that the other person’s foot was hurt. The best you can do is to understand what you did wrong, apologize and commit to doing better — without centering your emotions in the conversation.

 

How Leaders Can Address Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions can have a serious impact on a company’s culture. When employees are made to feel like outsiders, they won’t feel like they belong. Eventually, they will leave to find a company where they do.

“Ultimately, if you let a micro turn into a macro, over time it turns into a toxic work environment, it turns into a revolving door [of employees] and it turns into [a lawsuit],” said Ryan Whitacre, a partner at Bridge Partners, an inclusive executive search firm.

Here are some ways organization leaders can address — and prevent — microaggressions in the workplace:

1. Offer Educational Programming

To prevent microaggressions from occurring, HR leaders should try to educate everyone at the organization about microaggressions, unconscious biases and inclusive best practices with workshops, guest speakers and training sessions. Managers should receive additional training about these topics so they can lead inclusively and better understand employees who are impacted by microaggressions.

2. Resolve the Conflict Through Conversation

If conflict arises in the workplace, Dinnie suggests resolving the conflict through conversation, understanding and repair. That means taking the time to educate someone about the context behind the microaggression. Dinnie finds it more helpful to talk with each of the parties separately, as the person who committed the microaggression may feel defensive and blame the person who reported them. 

When confronting the person who committed the microaggression, Dinnie advises against “calling out” or condemning a person publicly. Instead, he suggests “calling them in” and deepening their understanding of the issue in hopes of reaching a long-term resolution.

3. Stay Vigilant

Preventing and addressing microaggressions is not easy, as employees from diverse backgrounds will each be bringing their own opinions and lived experiences to the workplace. While some employees may grumble about thinking before they speak, the alternative is a workplace that is harmful to the mental health of employees and the health of the organization.

 

Impact and Criticism of the Term ‘Microaggression’

Some argue that the word ‘microaggression’ downplays its impact, implying that these instances are minor annoyances rather than discriminatory actions that take a real emotional and psychological toll on those affected by them. For example, at least one study suggests subtle racism is just as harmful as overt racism. When compounded over time, microaggressions can make employees feel like outsiders and hinder an organization’s efforts to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Some are critical of the concept of microaggressions for other reasons, arguing that it contributes to circumstances in which words or actions are misinterpreted when an aggression did not actually occur. The term microaggression has also been criticized for implying that a perpetrator is always acting aggressively with purpose, while microaggressions can be at times unintentional.

Due to these factors, using the microaggression framework to properly address workplace discrimination remains an ongoing discussion.

Frequently Asked Questions

Some common microaggressions in the workplace are telling a Black coworker they are articulate, asking an Asian employee where they are from or speaking over a woman in a meeting.

Nonverbal microaggressions could include not making eye contact with a person who is talking to you, rolling one’s eyes when another person is speaking or a woman clutching her purse when a Black man gets on the elevator.

Other terms used to describe microaggressions can include "exclusionary behaviors" or "subtle acts of exclusion."

If you have personally experienced a microaggression, it can be helpful to:

  1. Evaluate the situation
  2. Acknowledge and bring attention to the microaggression that occurred
  3. Educate the offender about why the microaggression was harmful

 

If you have personally commited a microaggression, it can be helpful to:

  1. Listen to the offended party 
  2. Not react defensively 
  3. Acknowledge the microaggression and apologize to the recipient 

 

To address microaggressions in the workplace, it can be beneficial for leaders to:

  1. Offer educational programming to employees
  2. Resolve conflicts through conversations
  3. Be alert of microaggressions and address them promptly if they occur
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