How to deal with microaggressions in the workplace

Jelena Fisic

Last updated on: November 29, 2022

Do you know that feeling when you hear what’s meant to be a compliment from someone, but there’s something wrong with it?

For instance, if you’re a woman and a scientist, and someone reacts to that with: “You’re a scientist? Wow!” 

It was meant to be a compliment — but somehow you feel something’s wrong with it. 

Why is this person so surprised that you’re a scientist? Is it because you’re a woman? Does that imply that women cannot be scientists? Or, are you simply being hypersensitive and overthinking it?

Let us put your mind at ease — what you’ve experienced is called a microaggression.

You’re not overreacting and being too sensitive. 

Just keep reading and, we promise, we’ll deliver more “aha” moments like this.

So, in this blog post, first, we’ll define microaggressions.

Then, we’ll get you more acquainted with its forms and illustrate them with some examples.

After that, we’ll briefly consider the impact microaggressions have in the workplace. 

In the end, we’ll provide you with useful tips on dealing with microaggressions.

Let’s begin!

Microaggressions - cover

What are microaggressions? 

When psychiatrist Dr. Chester M. Pierce coined the term microaggression in the 1970s, he used it to describe subtle insults that African Americans face regularly.

However, psychologists have since expanded its definition, so that it includes this type of behavior toward any marginalized group.

Namely, communities or identities that can be targeted include, but are not limited to:

  • Race,
  • Gender,
  • Age,
  • Sexual orientation,
  • Socioeconomic class,
  • Citizenship status,
  • Disability, and
  • Religion.  

So, let’s see what exactly microaggressions are. 

In his book Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” 

These insults are, by their nature, small and sometimes barely noticeable. 

Since they are tied to our (mostly unconscious) biases, we may have trouble recognizing microaggressions.

And, because none of us is immune from inheriting these biases, we all have prejudices, stereotypes, and beliefs we are not aware of. 

Of course, on our conscious level, we might be endorsing egalitarian values, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we don’t harbor any feelings against minority groups unconsciously

The good news is that this is something we can work on, and we’ll start by getting better acquainted with microaggressions and their forms. 

So, roll up your sleeves, and let’s get to it!

Forms of microaggressions

Microaggressions come in different shapes and sizes and can be expressed in different manners. 

On that note, microaggressions can be delivered by:

  • Verbal mechanisms — when someone says something offensive or disrespectful to a member of a marginalized group. 
  • Behavioral mechanisms — when someone does something insensitive or problematic that plays into identity stereotypes.  
  • Environmental mechanisms — when there is a lack of representation of marginalized groups in society.

Speaking of the taxonomy of microaggressions, according to D. W. Sue, they fall into three major categories: 

  • Microassaults, 
  • Microinsults, and
  • Microinvalidations.
Forms of microaggressions
Forms of microaggressions

Let’s dive a bit deeper into what these terms mean. 

Microassaults

Microassaults are the only conscious microaggressions.

They involve explicit derogations directed toward a member of a marginalized group.

Since they are conscious, their intention is to hurt the intended victim through name-calling or discriminatory actions. 

Of all the types of microaggressions, microassaults are the easiest to recognize.

Let’s take a look at some examples of microassaults. 

Verbal microassaultsBehavioral microassaultsEnvironmental microassaults
Referring to:

Japanese Americans as “Japs”
Forbidding a son or daughter from marrying outside of one’s raceDisplaying a Nazi swastika
Women as
bitches
Ignoring a group of women who are requesting a table at a restaurant
Burning a cross
Gays as “fags”Promoting a less-qualified heterosexual employee over a gay one
Hanging Playboy bunny pictures in a male manager’s office

Microinsults 

Microinsults involve making comments or taking actions that communicate insensitivity to or disregard for a person’s identity. 

They are more subtle than microassaults, and perpetrators are often unaware that they are hurting other people.

Still, they convey insulting messages to members of marginalized groups. 

Let’s illustrate this with a few examples of microinsults.

Verbal microinsultsBehavioral microinsultsEnvironmental microinsults
When a male teacher expresses surprise at the math skills of a female student: 

“Wow, how did you get so good in math?”
A White woman who clutches her purse more tightly in the presence of LatinosWhen women in the workplace enter a conference room where portraits of all the past male CEOs or directors are displayed
Saying to an African American: 

“You’re a credit to your race!”
A White man checking for his wallet while passing a group of African Americans on the sidewalk
Television shows and movies that feature predominantly White heterosexual people, without representation of people of color or the LGBT+ population
Saying to an Asian American: 

“You speak English so well!” 
A female physician at an emergency room is mistaken by male patients for a nurse
The scarcity of professors and mentors of color in a university

Microinvalidations 

Microinvalidations are any comments, behavior, or environmental messages that exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or identity of a person from a marginalized group. 

Just like with microinsults, the perpetrators of this type of microaggressions are usually not aware of what they are doing. 

However, the lack of intent to hurt other people doesn’t mean that the targets are not hurt, which is why it’s all the more important to raise awareness about them.

For starters, we’ll give you a few examples of microinvalidations.

Verbal microinvalidationsBehavioral microinvalidationsEnvironmental microinvalidations
Asking a person who struggles with mental health: 

“You have a mental disability? You seem perfectly normal to me.”
Mistaking people of the same race
When a Black employee starts to work in a company with only White employees
Asking an Asian American with a perfect English accent:

“So, where are you
really from?”
A male colleague asking his female peer to take notes and order lunch for the team
Holding a meeting in a language not all meeting participants speak
Saying to an African American woman: 

“I don’t see color. We’re all human beings.”
Assuming that everyone in the workplace celebrates Christmas
Not using gender-sensitive language in job ads, thereby deterring women from applying to them

Now that we’ve seen what forms of microaggressions there are, it’s time we consider how they impact our work environment. 

How do microaggressions impact our workplace?

Did you know that, according to a study on microaggressions in the workplace, 45% of workers would be upset if being addressed unprofessionally (which is a form of microaggression)? 

Aside from that, around 30% of workers would consider leaving their job because of these microaggressions.

So, the “micro” in “microaggression” doesn’t mean that the impact of these assaults, insults, or invalidations is small. 

Maybe one or two microaggressions are nothing alarming, but the trouble is that they are an everyday occurrence for members of any marginalized group.

That is precisely why their cumulative effect is not to be disregarded.

Namely, it’s referred to as “death by a thousand cuts”.

So, let’s see what their impact on our workplace is.

Microaggressions have negative effects on employees’ health

Microaggressions at work can lead to various negative consequences regarding employees’ health.

Namely, according to research, there is a strong correlation between microaggressions and depression.

Aside from that, microaggressions lead to other health problems, such as:

  • Increased anxiety,
  • Stress, 
  • Headaches, 
  • Difficulties with sleep, and 
  • High blood pressure.

These all affect the work environment and lead to lowered task performance and increased counterproductive work behavior. 

Maybe the most detrimental effect is that microaggressions are related to an increased risk of burnout. 

Consequently, recovering from burnout requires significant cognitive and emotional resources. 

Microaggressions decrease employees’ sense of belonging

Microaggressions can be really damaging — both in personal and professional life. 

One of the things they affect in the workplace is a sense of belonging

Namely, members of marginalized groups already feel underrepresented in the workplace.

Microaggressions are adding to their injury by straining those insecurities and contributing to their sense of exclusion. 

Furthermore, microaggressions disrupt any attempts of building trust in the workplace.

Microaggressions negatively impact employees’ careers

When, as a member of a marginalized group, you feel too visible in the workplace, your first impulse might be to keep your head down and not draw attention to yourself.

In other words, when you feel like you don’t belong, you don’t fully participate in your workplace.

You don’t take any professional risks that involve greater visibility, recognition, or any kind of professional achievement, thereby decreasing your chances of any career advancement. 

That is why the lack of members of marginalized groups in positions of power is not surprising.

For instance, the report Women in the Workplace 2022 shows that women — particularly women of color — are still dramatically underrepresented in leadership roles.

Namely, only one in four C-suite leaders is a woman, and only one in 20 is a woman of color.

How to deal with microaggressions at work?

Microaggressions, even in the workplace, are our unfortunate reality, but there is a three-letter acronym as an antidote — DEI — diversity, equity, and inclusion

Particularly important is the equity part of this acronym — at least that’s what our contributor Chandni Desai, Account Strategist and Manager at Otter PR, thinks:

Chandni Desai

“The Equity part of DEI plays a huge role in becoming more aware of microaggressions in the workplace. 

For example, playing into stereotypes like asking women to smile more is a microaggression — perhaps not one that immediately sticks out to people, but it is. If we view women as equal in the workplace, that won’t happen, and then this further goes into larger issues like pay disparities, racial bias, etc. 

You cannot invalidate competence and physicalities or gaslight anyone who is not the hegemonic norm, and this must be established early into business development. DEI must be at the forefront of every business.”

Another contributor of ours, Janet Stovall, Global Head of DEI at the NeuroLeadership Institute and founder of Pragmatic Diversity, a DEI consultancy, is of the opinion that we must get to know what microaggressions are:

Janet Stovall

“The best way to increase awareness of microaggressions is to educate yourself on what they are. Once you start listening, you’ll hear them everywhere.”

Now, it’s time we see what some of the ways to deal with microaggressions are.

We’ll provide you with some tips on stopping them, no matter whether you’re:

  • The target,
  • The bystander/witness, or
  • The perpetrator

Are you ready to start listening?

What to do when you’re the target of microaggressions in the workplace?

Let’s start with maybe the most pressing matter — how to respond to microaggressions when you’re the one being targeted. 

Mind you, how and whether you’re going to respond to microaggression is completely up to you. Don’t put any more pressure on yourself than you need to.

Whatever you decide, we offer you some advice that may help you if you choose to respond.

Tip #1: Pause and consider the context

First, decide whether the perpetrator is someone you’d like to maintain a relationship with.

If not, you can respond in whatever way you want — bluntly or tactfully. 

However, if the perpetrator is a person closely connected to you, you shouldn’t be too direct.

After all, you want to keep that person in your life.

Right after the microaggression, respond shortly as you see fit, but schedule a time to talk about it later. 

Give the perpetrator some time to think about what they have said or done.

If it’s easier and less confronting for you, you may even schedule a video call via Pumble, a free business messaging platform.  

Video calls in Pumble
Video calls in Pumble, a team messaging app

Tip #2: Criticize the microaggression, not the microaggressor

When microaggression occurs, it’s important to criticize the very deed, not the doer. 

So, instead of accusing someone of being homophobic or sexist, be assertive and explain to them how their statement or behavior made you feel. 

Stovall agrees:

Janet Stovall

“Focus on what the person said or did rather than who they are. If they think you’re judging them, they may get defensive. Then, express how the comment or action made you feel.”

Likewise, another expert we’ve contacted, Sacha Thompson, an executive coach for DEI practitioners, suggested some useful phrases you could use while addressing the problem: 

Sacha Thompson

“Identify the feeling that caused the pause. 

‘I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but that comment made me feel as if you did not expect me to be articulate.’ 

or 

‘I know you didn’t mean anything by that, but something didn’t quite feel right about what you said. Can we talk it through?’”

In the Pumble example below, after a meeting in which her manager mispronounced her name, Saoirse decided to write to her manager and explain how she feels about it.

Mind you, she’s not criticizing her manager Katie, but rather Katie’s microaggression. Aside from that, she’s even offering a quick solution to the problem. 

Criticizing the microaggression in Pumble
Criticizing the microaggression in Pumble, a team messaging app

Tip #3: Pick your battles

Although people from privileged backgrounds might think that marginalized people are overreacting when it comes to microaggressions, that can’t be further from the truth.

Namely, most of the members of marginalized groups ignore the majority of microaggressions, because dealing with each and every one of them would be exhausting.

On the other hand, psychologists say that responding to microaggressions might be empowering.

Still, the question remains: how do you decide which battles to fight? 

That is precisely why Dr. Kevin L. Nadal developed a Guide to Responding to Microaggressions

In there, he offers a list of five questions that you should ask yourself when considering whether to respond to a microaggression:

If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?

If I respond, will the person become defensive and will this lead to an argument?

If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person?

If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?

If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?

This useful tool will help you reach a decision and pick your battles.

What to do when you witness a microaggression at work?

Have you heard of the bystander effect? 

It’s when the presence of others discourages you from taking action against a bully.

The irony is the greater number of bystanders, the less likely it is that anyone would help a person in distress. 

Still, you don’t have to succumb to this effect. 

You can be an ally. 

Typically, an ally comes from a privileged social group but is a great supporter and advocate for marginalized groups. 

In her TedTalk, Luvvie Ajayi Jones encourages us to embrace the uncomfortable and become the first domino. When the first domino falls, the rest will follow. 

Now, it’s time to see how we can be perfect allies to marginalized groups.

Tip #1: Educate yourself about microaggressions

First things first: know your enemy!

To be able to recognize these, sometimes elusive, offenses, you need to educate yourself about different forms of microaggressions. 

Also, know that, as microaggressions are most often unintended, most people might not even notice them.  

One of the experts we’ve reached out to, Kimberly Lee Minor, President at Bandier, agrees that this is the first step: 

Kimberly Lee Minor

“Before becoming more aware in the workplace, you must understand what microaggressions are and why they are so damaging. I recommend doing some self-discovery to develop an empathetic approach to being and then educating yourself on what microaggressions are. Identifying them will be difficult initially because they are micro and might not mean much to those not directed to them. Marry your empathy and education and personalize it. It will make it much easier to identify at work and in life.”

So, you need to allow yourself to be more empathic and teach yourself to notice microaggressions around you. 

💡 Pumble Pro Tip

Improving your emotional intelligence might come in handy on this journey, so if you need help with becoming a more empathic and self-aware ally, check out our blog post on emotional intelligence at work:

Tip #2: Make the invisible visible 

After you’ve educated yourself and learned to notice microaggressions around you, the next thing you need to do is make the invisible visible.

If a perpetrator is unaware of the microaggression they’ve committed — and the chances are they are — it’s your turn to speak up.

For starters, this simple sentence is enough: “What do you mean by that?”

Give the perpetrator a chance to explain themselves.

Kimberly Lee Minor advises: 

Kimberly Lee Minor

“In a situation where you witness a microaggression, it is good practice to apologize to the targeted person and then ask the offender if you can speak to them and explain why it was offensive. Encourage the offender to apologize and check themselves for the motive.”

However, make sure you speak for yourself, not in the name of the target, as Janet Stovall suggests:  

Janet Stovall

“Since you can’t speak for another person, focus on the impact it had on you — especially if you and the aggressor share the same in-group.”

So, instead of: “What you said is offensive to Black people.”, say: “What you said made me feel uncomfortable.”

This way, you’ll avoid the so-called savior complex — helping others in a self-serving manner that perpetuates racial bias and narratives of White supremacy. 

Tip #3: Reach out to your coworker who experienced microaggression

When microaggression happens, it’s important to validate your coworker’s feelings and experience.

Simply confirm to a colleague that what they experienced really is inappropriate behavior and microaggression.

Don’t let them think they imagined it and assure them they’re not being hypersensitive.

They’re probably used to second-guessing their every feeling, so this reassurance will certainly be welcome. 

What to do if you have committed a microaggression at work? 

You probably think this part doesn’t concern you. 

You have egalitarian views and you simply never commit any microaggressions, right?

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but wrong

The trouble is microaggressions usually emerge from our unconscious biases against people who are different from us. 

Of course, a rule of thumb is to work on your awareness of these biases and make sure you don’t make these kinds of mistakes.

However, the reality is that you probably have made them and possibly will in the future. 

To err is human, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on your mistakes and do your best not to repeat them. 

So, what should you do when you commit a microaggression?

Tip #1: Take a breath and admit the mistake 

OK, the worst has happened — you committed a microaggression towards your colleague and they called you out for it.

Naturally, it does not feel good.

You might feel embarrassed, defensive, and stressed — and this is all normal.

You feel the blood rushing to your face and your heart rate is up.

The first thing you need to do is take a deep breath and calm yourself down. 

The fact that you made a mistake does not make you a bad person. You just did or said something bad unwittingly.

Now’s the time to own up to your action and admit the mistake.

Desai advises:

Chandni Desai

“If one has committed a microaggression, it’s best to acknowledge it, take responsibility, and make a change. Request 1-1 DEI training, apologize, and move on. 

Accountability must be prioritized and this ties into creating a more forgiving workplace and killing toxic corporate culture.

So, to foster a healthy company culture, first, you need to be held accountable for your mistakes.

Tip #2: Listen for understanding

To fully redeem yourself in the eyes of your coworker, you need to make sure they feel heard.

We know it’s not easy to listen to criticism, but have an open heart and an open mind. 

The individual you hurt with your microaggression might want to explain in detail why what you did or said was hurtful. If that’s the case, embrace this learning opportunity and make the most of the situation.

On the other hand, it’s completely understandable if they just want to point out to you that you should not say that word or do what you did. 

The burden of education is not on your colleagues. 

Listen to your colleagues you offended, but don’t expect members of marginalized communities to educate you.

Our contributor Kimberly Lee Minor said something similar: 

Kimberly Lee Minor

“Microaggressions are formed from ignorance and based on stereotypes. If you are ready to learn and grow, you should first apologize. Secondly, make a note of what you said or did and why.

Note the person’s reaction, and do not do it again.”

To sum up, you should listen to the person you’ve offended with attention and learn as much as you can from this situation. 

Tip #3: Acknowledge and apologize, but don’t overdo it

Last but not least, you need to say you’re sorry for what you said or did.

Communication experts claim that your apology has to include three elements. You need to:

  1. Address the hurtful comment or behavior,
  2. Acknowledge its impact on your colleague, and
  3. Commit to doing better.

Even though you didn’t have bad intentions, the impact is real. 

Janet Stovall agrees: 

Janet Stovall

Acknowledge and apologize for the negative impact you had. Intent doesn’t matter, impact does.”

In the Pumble example below, Judith Debord, a new project manager in a mobile phone company, is expressing her concerns about a microaggression that occurred in the meeting. 

Her colleague John Bautista is surprised but grateful to her for trusting him enough to share her concerns. 

Acknowledging and apologizing for microaggressions in Pumble
Acknowledging and apologizing for microaggressions in Pumble, a team messaging app

Additionally, when confronted with their transgressions, many people have a tendency to over-apologize. This kind of behavior is counterproductive, since it shifts the focus from the target to the perpetrator. 

You should not expect your colleague to comfort you for your mistakes. 

Let’s see what over-apologizing looks like, in another example from Pumble. 

The situation is the same, but this time John Bautista has a different reaction to Judith’s concerns about his microaggression.

Over-apologizing in Pumble
Over-apologizing in Pumble, a team messaging app

Long story short — apologize, but don’t overdo it. Be like Bautista from our first example. 

Conclusion: Dealing with microaggressions is key to a more inclusive workplace

All of us can be perpetrators and witnesses, and a lot of us (if not all) can be targets of microaggressions in the workplace. 

If we want a more inclusive workplace, we need authentic conversations about tough topics — racism, homophobia, and sexism. 

Once again, communication is key. 

We have given you tips on how to deal with microaggressions if you’re:

  • The target,
  • The witness,
  • The perpetrator.

The more we talk about microaggressions and the more aware of them we are, the greater the chances for a workplace where all employees feel comfortable in their skin — regardless of its color. 

✉️ What about you? Have you noticed any microaggressions in your workplace? How do they impact your workplace environment? Do you have any additional tips on what to do when you witness microaggressions? Share your experience and tips at blogfeedback@pumble.com and we may include your answers in this or future posts. 

Author: JelenaFisic

Jelena Fisic is a writer and researcher, constantly reading and broadening her knowledge about communication and collaboration. As a long-time remote worker, she is eager to share her experiences and gathered knowledge, and give you some tips for improving team communication and collaboration skills while working from home.

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