Identifying and Avoiding Microaggressions at Work

It’s important to remember the impact our words and actions can have on other people, especially coworkers. Sometimes well-intentioned behavior can have unintended consequences. What we view as an off-hand compliment or gesture can be interpreted as an insult or put-down to another person.  Here’s your guide to navigating and avoiding these “microaggressions” in the workplace.

What are Microaggressions?

Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University psychology professor, defines 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.”

The term was coined in 1970 by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce. While Pierce originally used it to describe insults directed toward African Americans, the term has broadened in scope to include any slight made against someone of a specific gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, or disability.

Microaggressions are often the result of someone’s privilege, hidden prejudice, and unconscious bias. While microaggressions can be intentional, there is often no ill will behind them. That said, they can cause serious harm, especially in the workplace. Being aware of and challenging microaggressions in the office can help create an inclusive work environment where every employee feels welcome and valued.

Examples of Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions can happen anywhere, but it’s important to be mindful of your actions and their unintended consequences at work. We spend more time with our coworkers than our loved ones during the week, and oftentimes our teammates come from cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds different than our own. Here are a few examples of microaggressions in the workplace:

1. Gender-Based Microaggression: A male senior leader always asks the one female member of his team to take notes during team meetings. While he might appreciate her thorough and detailed notes, the female employee may think his request insinuates she, as a woman, won’t add value to the meeting otherwise. This might prevent her from speaking up in meetings in the future.

2. Race-Based Microaggression: A white manager is extremely proud of a black employee’s recent presentation to senior leadership. The manager takes him aside and tells him, “You did a great job, I was surprised at how thoughtful and articulate you were.” His direct report might be taken aback by the comment as it might suggest that people of color are not usually articulate. This might hurt the employee’s self-esteem and make him less likely to turn to his manager for help in the future.

3. Sexual-Orientation-Based Microaggression: An HR representative announces the company’s unlimited PTO policy is being replaced with a set number of vacation days based on tenure. Someone shouts, “That’s gay,” during an all-company meeting. This statement suggests that being gay is something negative and could leave LGBTQ employees feeling uncomfortable in the workplace.

The Impact of Microaggressions

The gap between intention and impact is where the biggest issues arise. That difference is what can damage relationships or your overall work environment, according to Ada Thatcher-James, a consultant at diversity and inclusion strategy firm Paradigm Strategy Inc. In addition to the psychological toll, microaggressions likely also hurt overall productivity.

“After a microaggression, someone might spend a lot of cognitive time thinking about that interaction. They might be nervous around the aggressor and avoid interacting with them again, which can ultimately affect their job performance,” says Thatcher-James.

Meanwhile, the offender might be totally unaware of what they’ve done.

“On the flip side, the other person is probably thinking nothing of it. They probably don’t even remember saying it. All of us will probably make a microaggression at some point because we are a product of our own culture and our own life experiences and we don’t always know what others think,” she adds.

What Should You Do If You Commit a Microaggression at Work?

If you accidentally commit a microaggression at work, don’t fret. Keep an open mind and follow these four steps to help the situation.

1. Think Before You Speak

The best way to keep yourself from committing a microaggression is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see if what you were going to say could come off differently than you intended.


2. Don’t Be Defensive

“Microaggression is a scary word,” says Thatcher-James. “Many people get extremely defensive when they’ve been told they committed a microaggression. If someone confronts you over a microaggression, view this as an opportunity to learn, grow, and show you value the other person.”  


3. Acknowledge Your Mistake and Educate Yourself

If someone brings a microaggression to your attention, ask them why what you said or did was inappropriate and keep an open mind. Everyone’s experiences and backgrounds are different, so what you might find harmless could seriously upset a coworker. “Impact trumps intent,” says Thatcher-James, so acknowledge the impact of your actions and listen to how you upset your coworker.  

“The best thing you can do is acknowledge your mistake, apologize, and learn,” says Thatcher-James. “Educate yourself on why and how you committed a microaggression. We shouldn’t put that burden on the other person. It’s your duty to educate yourself and avoid making the same mistake again.”

4. Call Out Microaggressions

Most microaggressions go unreported. If you see or hear something a colleague does or says that perpetuates a stereotype, make them aware of their mistake. Odds are the person at the receiving end of the microaggression will be too flustered to say something, so take the burden off them by raising your own voice. Create a culture in which teammates look out for one another and where perpetuating inequalities is unacceptable.

HR plays a critical role in building a culture of acceptance and inclusion. Encourage your employees to speak up when they see or hear microaggressions in the workplace and take swift, decisive action to show your commitment to your employee’s well-being.

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