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Microaggressions in the Workplace

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In today’s world, workplace diversity is celebrated and encouraged. For starters, cultural diversity is proven to bring higher revenue growth for organizations. Aside from the financial benefits, ethnically diverse companies are more likely to be innovation leaders, change-ready, and outperform competitors.  

However, despite the progress in promoting inclusion and equality, microaggressions are rampant and continue to exist in many workplaces.  

These subtle, often unintentional comments or actions can profoundly impact the well-being and performance of employees, particularly those who belong to marginalized groups.  

Unfortunately, when individuals speak up about experiencing such prejudices, they are often met with dismissive remarks such as “It’s just a joke” or “Don’t be so serious.”  

In this article, we will examine how to address microaggressions in the workplace, their definition, typical examples, and how they can affect employees. 

What are Microaggressions in the Workplace?

Microaggressions in the workplace are the everyday verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights, interactions, and insults that people of marginalized groups experience, typically from well-intentioned people who may not be aware of their impact. 

Identities and communities that are frequently targeted include, but are not limited to:  

  • Gender 
  • Race 
  • Age 
  • Sexual orientation 
  • Disability 
  • Citizenship status 
  • Socioeconomic class  
  • Religion 
  • Mental health status   

In other words, microaggressions are the veiled instances of racism, homophobia, sexism (and more) that often happen in the workplace as comments, gestures, or insults.  

So, what are microaggressions in the workplace in the practical sense? 

Within five years of joining her company, senior manager Ann Hopkins brought her company more business than any other employee. Yet, she was twice passed over for the opportunity at a partnership with her firm.   

The reason why?   

Ann Hopkins was told she had to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”  

Unfortunately, this was the sad reality for many women in the workplace until the landmark discrimination case in 1989 of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, which paved the way for the courts to recognize discrimination and harassment based on sex and gender stereotypes in the workplace.  

While this type of overt discrimination and “macro-aggression” is rarer today, people of marginalized groups are frequently exposed to subtle microaggressions in the workplace.  

Examples of Microaggressions in the Workplace

While on the surface, these remarks may seem harmless and benign, microaggressions have a “macro” effect on a person, making them feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and even threatened.   

Often referred to by psychologists as the “death by a thousand paper cuts,”, the cumulative effect of microaggressions can significantly harm the mental well-being of employees and, depending on the severity and frequency, even cause workplace trauma.   

According to the Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life study, various degrees of aggression can happen in the workplace, classified into subgroups of microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations 

Some examples of microaggressions in the workplace include: 

  • Microassault – “Old-fashioned” discrimination; Conscious and deliberate acts of discrimination such as racial, religious, or sexist slurs, referring to someone as “colored” or “oriental,” displaying white supremacist symbols, or mocking a group’s traditional dress or norms. 
    Although they are intentional discriminatory actions, they are typically expressed in limited “private” situations (micro), allowing the perpetrator a degree of anonymity.   
  • Microinsult – Often unconscious statements or actions that convey rudeness and insensitivity towards a person’s racial heritage or identity
    For example, asking a person of color how they got their job – insinuating affirmative action or a quota system, or saying “He’s one of the good ones” or “You are so articulate” stems from the bias that that some groups are less good or less intelligent than others.  
  • Microinvalidation – Forms of communication that disregard or invalidate the psychological and experiential reality of individuals belonging to marginalized groups, particularly people of color. 
    For example, asking visible minority citizens where they’re born, thereby negating their US-American heritage.  

Unfortunately, aside from microassaults, the other types of microaggressions often get ignored by employers.  

Types of Workplace Microaggressions

One of the defining features of microaggressions is that they often contain a hidden message or subtext, known as “metacommunication.”  

The communication may not be overtly derogatory or insulting, but it still carries the weight of prejudice and discrimination. 

There are different types of workplace microaggressions, each with its own message, characteristics, and effects. Below are three common types of microaggressions and specific examples of each: 

Verbal Microaggressions 

Verbal microaggressions are comments or questions that seem innocent or harmless but have an underlying message that can be offensive or discriminatory. Examples of verbal microaggressions include: 

  • “You speak English so well!” (to someone with a non-English accent) 
  • “Wow, you’re really good at math for a girl!” (to a female colleague) 
  • “That’s so ghetto.” (to a person of color) 

Environmental Microaggressions 

Environmental microaggressions are the subtle ways in which a workplace can make certain employees feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. Examples of environmental microaggressions include: 

  • Having only pictures of one race or gender on the walls. 
  • Having a dress code that doesn’t allow for cultural or religious clothing. 
  • Not providing accessibility accommodations for employees with disabilities. 

Behavioral Microaggressions 

Behavioral microaggressions are actions or behaviors that convey a negative message or reinforce stereotypes. Examples of behavioral microaggressions include: 

  • Interrupting or talking over someone in a meeting. 
  • Not giving credit or recognition for a person’s work. 
  • Making assumptions about a person’s abilities or preferences based on their appearance or identity.  

Common Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions & Race 

Microaggressions can affect the mental and emotional well-being of individuals from marginalized racial groups, perpetuate systemic racism, and contribute to a hostile environment.   

Microaggressions can take many forms towards any race and ethnicity. Common examples of racial microaggressions in the workplace include: 

  • Assuming a person of color is a service worker or custodian. 
  • Telling a person of color they don’t “act” or “sound” like they are from their racial group. 
  • Asking a person of color to speak on behalf of their entire racial group. 

Despite the ongoing fight against racial injustice, reports of racial profiling, discriminatory messages, and microaggressions directed at Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) continue to be all too common.  

In the last year, around 24% of Hispanic and Black workers have stated that they felt discriminated against, while nearly 35% of Native Americans have reported encountering offensive language directed at them at work. 

Even more disturbingly, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an alarming increase in hate crimes towards Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). With Asian Americans perceived as carriers of the virus, they were subjected to avoidant behaviors, disapproving stares, and expressions of disgust. Shockingly, one survey revealed that over a third (34%) of Asian Americans reported experiencing a microaggression or knowing a friend or family member who did.  

Microaggressions & Gender 

Microaggressions are common for individuals whose gender expression deviates from societal norms. These subtle and often unintentional actions are directed toward anyone who does not conform to traditional gender roles, including transgender individuals, non-binary individuals, and women.   

A staggering 90% of transgender individuals reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment, or even violence in the workplace. Trans or non-binary individuals deal with misgendering, “deadnaming” (use of the incorrect name) and being referred to by wrong pronouns.   

Women are subjected to a myriad of microaggressions in both personal and professional settings. These gender microaggressions in the workplace can take the form of belittling comments about their capabilities, condescending behavior, and life choices.  

For instance, comments like “You should smile more,” “Don’t be so sensitive,” and “When are you going to have kids? You’re not getting any younger?” can be particularly harmful. Such microaggressions contribute to a hostile work or social environment and create barriers to career advancement and personal growth.  

While microaggressions against men are not as prevalent as those experienced by women and gender non-conforming individuals, they still happen. These microaggressions often stem from rigid societal expectations around masculinity, including a pressure to be stoic, dominant, and unemotional.   

Men who deviate from these norms can face microaggressions in the workplace. Examples of microaggressions towards men can include being told to “man up” or “stop being a wimp” when expressing emotions, being excluded from activities seen as “feminine,” or being mocked for not conforming to traditional masculine behavior.  

As society grapples with gender stereotypes and biases, it is vital to recognize and actively challenge the impact of gender-based microaggressions.   

Microaggressions & Sexuality 

 Microaggressions are also often directed toward individuals who identify as LGBTQ+. These microaggressions are often rooted in heteronormative societal norms that assume everyone is heterosexual and cisgender. 

LGBTQ+ individuals may face microaggressions in various forms, such as comments, jokes, and discriminatory behavior. According to a survey conducted by McKinsey, almost a third of LGBTQ+ employees reported being subjected to microaggressions in the workplace, such as being talked over or interrupted during conversations. These microaggressions can convey a message that they are not accepted, valued, or respected in society, which can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and social isolation.  

Examples of LGBT microaggressions in the workplace include being told that their sexual orientation or gender identity is a choice, being asked invasive questions about their personal life, or being excluded from social events or professional opportunities because of their identity.  

Microaggressions & Mental Health   

 Microaggressions directed toward individuals with mental health conditions can exacerbate the stigma already attached to mental health issues and lead to more prejudice and marginalization.   

Examples of microaggressions towards individuals with mental health conditions can include being told to “Just get over it,” being dismissed or ignored when sharing their experiences, or being assumed to be “dangerous” or “unpredictable.”  

These microaggressions can contribute to a culture of shame and silence around mental health issues and prevent individuals from seeking the support they need.   

Microaggressions & Implicit Bias 

 Research has unveiled a troubling truth  that negative stereotypes about one’s race or gender can impact academic performance.  

For instance, women who are exposed to stereotypes about their perceived poor math performance are more likely to struggle on math tests. At the same time, African Americans’ intelligence scores can dip when they are confronted with stereotypes about their supposed inferiority.   

These stereotypes are often reinforced by implicit biases, which are unconscious attitudes and beliefs individuals hold toward specific groups of people. Such biases can be deeply ingrained, shaping our perceptions and behaviors in ways that may go unnoticed. When left unchecked, they can manifest as microaggressions contributing to a toxic culture. 

For example, implicit biases may result in assumptions that people of color are dangerous or that women are not suited for executive leadership roles. 

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The Cost of Unaddressed Workplace Microaggressions

 Despite some criticism that our society is hypersensitive regarding the topic of workplace microaggressions, the research is clear: seemingly innocuous comments and actions can have a lasting impact on individuals’ physical and mental health.  

  • Physical and mental health cost  

Over the course of a career, unaddressed microaggressions can lead to increased rates of depression, prolonged stress, and trauma, even manifest with physical symptoms such as headaches and high blood pressure, and difficulties with sleep. 

A study published by the NCBI showed a connection between microaggressions and poor physical health. The study found that participants from the American Indian/Alaska Native (AIAN) community who experienced microaggressions reported higher instances of past heart attacks, depression, and previous hospitalizations. 

  • Lost productivity cost  

The costs of microaggressions don’t stop there.  

A toxic work culture can quickly escalate to insults and bullying, which is detrimental to both the individuals affected and the organization as a whole.  

As a result, microaggressions in the workplace can also have a negative impact on individuals’ careers, leading to increased burnout and decreased job satisfaction. A Deloitte survey revealed that 68% of employees feel that witnessing or experiencing bias in the workplace harmed their productivity.  

All of that adds up, and it is estimated that the lost productivity due to these “sneaky offenses” costs the US economy $450 to $550 billion in workforce productivity.   

  • High turnover cost  

Today, employers aim to foster a culture of well-being and shape a better employee experience, mainly due to workplace culture’s impact on employee retention. In fact, seven in ten workers say they would be upset by a microaggression which highlights the importance of creating a culture of respect in the workplace 

Half of the employees say it would make them consider leaving their job, indicating that microaggressions can significantly affect employee morale and retention. 

  • Lawsuit costs  

Despite laws that have existed for decades to combat workplace discrimination, the reality is that discrimination has not gone away.  

In fact, it often takes on subtler forms, such as unconscious bias, stereotypes, and microaggressions. Although indirect, these forms of discrimination can also put companies at risk of lawsuits and lower the standard of living, further exacerbating inequities in employment, education, and healthcare.  

In 2022, the ten highest settlements in employment discrimination cases totaled $597 million.  

Considering the dire consequences of unaddressed microaggressions in the workplace, you might be wondering how to stop microaggressions in the workplace. 

Addressing Microaggressions in the Workplace

Words can often be unintentionally wounding.  

Regardless, any “light put-downs” should be taken seriously and addressed because, at their core, they reflect inequality and signal disrespect 

“Unfortunately, employees are often unaware that their actions could amount to microaggressions. That’s why all employers should make sure their teams go through a legitimate, engaging curriculum on workplace harassment training. Education is half the battle.”, explains Daniel Caughill, Co-Founder at CMPLY.  

Therefore, a broad answer to how to address microaggressions in the workplace would be to educate and show empathy.  

How Can Employees Respond to Workplace Microaggressions?  

The American Psychological Association suggests these strategies to those who experience microaggressions:  

  • Consider the context, assume positive intent, and decide whether to let it go.  
  • Respond to the microaggression in a non-confrontational manner if it feels safe to do so. 
  • Ask for clarification and discuss the incident.  
  • Explain how the microaggression made you feel and why it is important.  
  • Focus on the microaggression, not the person.  
  • Ask the aggressor to stop the behavior. 
  • If the behavior continues and the coworker crosses boundaries again, report the incidents to a supervisor or file a complaint with HR.  

Being the recipient of any form of discrimination is disheartening, and these conversations aren’t easy for anyone, but they are crucial to effect change.  

How Can Managers Address Microaggressions in the Workplace? 

 Microaggressions are a product of broader societal issues such as housing and school segregation, biased media portrayals, and inadequate education on social and historical topics.  

Company leaders and managers may be unable to eradicate these problems alone. However, this should not discourage them from creating a more secure work environment for marginalized employees. 

Here are some best practices for managers to address microaggressions in the workplace: 

  • Foster open and honest communication 
  • Lead by example 
  • Educate employees on microaggressions and their impact 
  • Create a safe reporting system for employees to report incidents 
  • Take swift and appropriate action when incidents occur 
  • Evaluate policies and practices for potential bias 

Jon Morgan, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Venture Smarter shared their excellent approach, stating, At Venture Smarter, we have a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination and harassment of any kind, including microaggressions.  

We provide regular training to all employees on how to identify and address microaggressions, and we encourage employees to report any incidents they witness or experience.  

Our HR department is trained to investigate any reported incidents and take appropriate action, up to and including termination if necessary. We also strive to create a culture of openness and inclusivity, where employees feel comfortable discussing any issues or concerns they may have related to microaggressions or any other issue. We believe that it’s our responsibility as leaders to create a workplace culture that is welcoming, respectful, and inclusive for all employees.”   

Overcoming Microaggressions in the Workplace: Microaggression Trainings & Resources

Prevention is the best tool to eliminate microaggressions in the workplace 

Not all companies can avoid discrimination, and even those with impeccable workplace ethics should take a proactive approach to prevent microaggressions from ever taking place.   

Building an inclusive workplace involves regular training, evaluating practices, and updating policies.   

  1. Create and update discrimination policies – formalize anti-discrimination and define what is acceptable regarding professional conduct and what’s not.   
  2. DEI training and education are excellent resources for raising awareness and learning how to navigate these difficult dialogues.  
  3. Unconscious bias and microaggression training in the workplace can help employees understand how to discern between what’s acceptable and how to prevent microaggressions in the workplace. 
  4. Organizations can implement “allies” programs to nurture a culture of allyship and support employees in addressing microaggressions. 
  5. Compliance training can reinforce a culture of respect in the workplace.  
  6. Reevaluate the recruitment process, including hiring and interviewing practices and discipline and performance reviews.   
  7. Set in place conflict management strategies to prevent any escalation of conflicts. 

Creating a welcoming and diverse environment that enables individuals to thrive does not happen overnight. Instead, it is a continuous learning, development, and growth journey. 


All employees deserve to feel safe and welcomed in their workspace. Ultimately, organizations are responsible for cultivating a positive work environment by educating and addressing the harmful effects of microaggressions in the workplace 

Written by Ivana Radevska | Senior Content Writer at Shortlister
Written by Ivana Radevska | Senior Content Writer at Shortlister