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Microaggressions in the Workplace: An Overview

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What are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions in the workplace or in general are subtle and often unintentional forms of discrimination.

The term “microaggressions” was first coined by Dr Chester M. Pierce, a Harvard University psychiatrist and professor, in the 1970s. Dr Pierce used the term to describe the discrimination he observed in his clinical work and personal experiences.

Today, the term has gained widespread use and recognition. It has become an important concept in understanding and addressing issues of discrimination and inequality in the workplace and society as a whole.

Microaggressions can significantly impact individuals, teams, and organisational culture. These everyday slights, insults, and invalidations can create a hostile work environment and contribute to a range of negative outcomes, including lower job satisfaction, reduced productivity, and higher employee turnover.

  • At their core, they are expressions of bias and prejudice that are often unintentional or unconscious. These can take many forms, including verbal and nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.
  • One of the most insidious aspects of microaggressions is that they are often subtle and difficult to identify. They can be subtle enough to fly under the radar, making it challenging to address or challenge these behaviours when they occur.
  • This can lead to a sense of frustration, anxiety, and isolation among those who experience microaggressions, as they may feel like they are the only ones who recognise these behaviours and are powerless to do anything about them.

Examples and Types of Microaggressions in the Workplace

Two Colleagues in a cafe talking, one saying something inappropriate that the other reacts to

There are many examples of microaggressions in the workplace, and they can occur in various forms. Here are some examples:

Verbal Microaggressions

Verbal microaggressions are one of the most common forms of microaggression in the workplace. They can include subtle comments or jokes that are intended to be humorous but can be perceived as hurtful or demeaning. Examples of verbal microaggressions include:

  • A manager commenting on an employee’s accent or use of language
  • A co-worker making a joke about a person’s race or ethnicity
  • An employee using a derogatory term to refer to someone from a different gender, race or culture

Non-Verbal Microaggressions

Nonverbal microaggressions can be more difficult to identify but can be just as damaging as verbal microaggressions. These can include subtle facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice that can communicate a negative attitude or bias. Examples of nonverbal microaggressions include:

  • Rolling eyes or shaking the head when a person is speaking
  • Avoiding eye contact with someone or excluding them from a conversation
  • Using a dismissive or patronising tone of voice with someone

Microaggressions Based on Identity

Microaggressions can also be based on a person’s identity, such as their race, gender, sexual orientation, or ability status. These microaggressions can be particularly damaging, as they can create a sense of exclusion and marginalisation for individuals who belong to marginalised groups. Examples of identity-based microaggressions include:

  • A manager assuming that a person of colour is not qualified for a certain job
  • A co-worker making a derogatory comment about a person’s sexual orientation
  • An employee assuming that a person with a disability is not capable of performing certain tasks
  • A colleague assuming that a woman is less competent than a man in a particular job.

Microaggressions in Recruitment

male job applicants up against one female applicant

Microaggressions can also occur in the hiring process, contributing to a lack of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. These microaggressions include:

  • Making assumptions about a person’s qualifications based on their name, ethnicity or age
  • Asking inappropriate or irrelevant questions during a job interview
  • Making assumptions about a person’s ability status based on their resume or application
  • Failing to provide accommodations for candidates with disabilities

Categories of Microaggressions

Psychologist Dr. Derald Wing Sue is a trailblazer of modern approaches to microaggression and along with his colleagues, has established three categories to classify microaggressions:

  • Microassaults: This refers to intentional discriminatory behaviour that may not have been intended to offend. For example, telling a joke with a racist undertone and then excusing it as “just a joke.”
  • Microinsults: These are comments or actions that are unconsciously discriminatory. An instance of microinsults can be telling an Indian doctor that “Your English is so good.”
  • Microinvalidations: This occurs when a person’s statement dismisses or discredits the experiences of an underrepresented group. For example, a white person telling a Black person that “You’re too sensitive about racism. It’s not really that big of an issue today.”

How to Identify Microaggressions

Identifying microaggressions can be challenging, as they are often subtle and difficult to recognise. However, there are some key indicators that can help you identify microaggressions in the workplace.

  • A feeling of discomfort or unease when someone makes a comment or behaves in a certain way
  • A sense of being excluded or marginalised by colleagues or superiors
  • A pattern of repeated negative comments or behaviours from a particular individual or group
  • An increase in stress or anxiety related to interactions in the workplace

The Impact of Microaggressions

Woman looking sad and unhappy with hand on head sitting on couch

The impact of microaggressions can be profound, both on individuals and on the organisation as a whole. On a personal level, microaggressions can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress. They can erode self-confidence and create a sense of isolation and disconnection from colleagues and the workplace community. They can also contribute to a toxic work environment that makes it difficult for employees to feel valued and motivated, leading to reduced productivity and higher employee turnover.

On an organisational level, microaggressions can contribute to a culture of discrimination and exclusion. They can undermine diversity and inclusion initiatives and create a perception that the organisation is not committed to creating a welcoming and supportive environment for all employees. This can damage the organisation’s reputation, reduce employee engagement, and lead to a loss of talent and innovation.

Causes of Microaggressions

There are many potential root causes of microaggressions. We’ve outlined some of the prevalent ones below.

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is one of the primary root causes of microaggressions. This type of bias occurs when an individual’s attitudes or beliefs about a particular group of people are formed outside of their conscious awareness. These biases can be based on factors such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ability status, or age, and can manifest as microaggressions.


Stereotyping is another root cause of microaggressions in the workplace. Stereotyping occurs when an individual makes assumptions about a person based on their membership in a particular group. These assumptions may be based on stereotypes or generalisations that are not necessarily true of all members of the group.

Cultural Norms

Cultural norms can also contribute to the root causes of microaggressions. These norms can also be based on factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. They can be deeply ingrained in an individual’s worldview. Societal institutions, such as the media or educational system, can reinforce cultural norms.

For example, an individual might assume that a person with a disability cannot perform certain tasks based on cultural norms that view disability as a weakness or limitation. This assumption can lead to microaggressions, such as excluding a person with a disability from professional opportunities or failing to provide reasonable accommodations.

Lack of Diversity and Inclusion

A lack of diversity and inclusion within an organisation can also contribute to the root causes of microaggressions. For example, when individuals are not exposed to diverse perspectives and experiences, they may be more likely to make assumptions and engage in stereotyping.

For instance, a workplace that is primarily composed of individuals from a particular racial or ethnic group may be more likely to engage in microaggressions towards individuals from other groups. Similarly, a workplace that is not inclusive of individuals from diverse gender or sexual orientation identities may be more likely to engage in microaggressions towards these individuals.

How to Address Microaggressions in the Workplace

Addressing microaggressions in the workplace requires a proactive approach.

It’s essential to create a culture of awareness and accountability. This requires a commitment from leadership to proactively identify and address microaggressions when they occur. It also requires training and education for all employees to help them recognise and understand the impact of microaggressions and to provide them with the tools and resources they need to challenge and address these behaviours.

Organisations can also adopt policies and procedures that create a safe and supportive workplace environment. These can include formal grievance procedures, diversity and inclusion training, and the establishment of employee resource groups to support marginalised groups within the organisation.

These initiatives help create a sense of community and belonging, contributing to a more positive and productive workplace environment. Here are some steps employers can take:

Educate Employees on Microaggressions

Training is one of the most effective ways to mitigate microaggressions in the workplace. By providing employees with the knowledge and skills they need to identify and address microaggressions, employers can promote a workplace culture that is respectful and inclusive.

Training programs should focus on educating employees about the impact of microaggressions and providing them with the tools and resources they need to challenge and address these behaviours.

Organisational Policies

Organisational policies can also be an effective way to mitigate microaggressions in the workplace. By creating clear policies and procedures for preventing and addressing microaggressions, employers can promote a workplace culture of accountability and respect.

Organisational policies may include:

  • Establishing clear definitions of microaggressions and the consequences for engaging in this behaviour
  • Providing a formal grievance process for employees to report incidents of harassment and discrimination, including microaggressions
  • Ensuring that all employees are aware of the policies and procedures for preventing and addressing microaggressions.

Take immediate action

Employers should take immediate action to address microaggressions when they are reported. This can include investigating the incident, supporting the affected employee, and taking disciplinary action against the aggressor.

Create a diverse and inclusive workplace

Employers can create a workplace that values diversity and inclusion. This can include promoting diversity in hiring and retention practices, providing accommodations for employees with disabilities, and creating a safe and welcoming workplace for all employees.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives can also play a significant role in mitigating microaggressions in the workplace. By promoting a workplace culture that is inclusive of all employees, employers can create a sense of belonging and respect that can help to prevent microaggressions from occurring.

Diversity and inclusion initiatives may include:

  • Establishing employee resource groups for marginalised groups within the organisation, such as women, people of colour, or individuals with disabilities
  • Implementing policies and procedures that promote diversity and inclusion, such as diversity recruitment and hiring practices
  • Encouraging open communication and dialogue about diversity and inclusion within the workplace.

Experience Our Free Course

Microaggressions can be challenging to understand, especially when written in text.

If you want to understand what microaggressions are and what they feel like, experience our free short course on microaggressions. It only takes just a few minutes to complete.

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