May 28, 2024

Have you ever experienced or witnessed someone say or do something that made you or others feel judged, unwelcome or undervalued at work? These are known as microaggressions, and they can have a big impact, even though they might seem small at first. 

Microaggressions are comments, jokes or behaviors that subtly put down or stereotype people based on things like their race, gender or abilities. While often unintentional, microaggressions can make you feel excluded and less productive, and contribute to poor mental health and increase turnover. 

Research reveals that 62% of Americans have experienced or witnessed microaggressions at work. And yet, only 10% of workers believe they have personally committeda microaggression – an indication that these behaviors often go unrecognized. Managers, in particular, are frequently mentioned as aggressors — which is a serious problem, because three in ten workers believe the experience is worse if committed by senior employees. 

Recognizing microaggressions

Even people with the best intentions can inadvertently commit a hurtful microaggression. In the workplace, microaggressions can happen in all types of conversations. For example, when evaluating a job candidate or the performance of someone, or when interacting with customers who have a different first language than our own. 

There are three main types of microaggressions:

  • Verbal microaggressions are comments or questions that belittles someone’s identity or perpetuates a stereotype. For example, telling a Black co-worker, “You’re so articulate” or asking an Asian colleague, “How long have you been in the United States?”
  • Nonverbal microaggressions – nonverbal microaggressions in the workplace are expressed through body language, facial expressions or gestures that convey hurtful or discriminatory messages to a certain group of people. For example, eye rolling at older co-workers’ stories.
  • Environmental microaggressions are subtle cues or signals within a physical space that convey exclusion. For example, a lack of diversity in workplace decorations or holding company events at venues that are inaccessible to individuals with disabilities.

“We’re all human beings who are prone to mistakes,” says Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has spent years researching and writing books on the effects of microaggressions. “It’s not necessarily that you’re a bad person if you commit a microaggression, but rather that you need to be more aware of your biases and impact on people.”  

Nadal says training can help individuals understand what microaggressions are, how they originate and how to prevent them. And education also provides targets of microaggressions with practical tips for how to react.  

“It is important to understand that many times people who engage in microaggressions will not believe that what they said was racist or sexist or homophobic,” says Nada, adding that it is important to stay calm and explain to a microaggressor why their comments are offensive. The idea is to help a perpetrator become more aware and empathetic, without putting them on the defensive.  

Practicing microaffirmations

Ongoing employee training should also explain how to use microaffirmations ─ small acts and gestures of kindness and recognition that show people they are valued, respected and belong ─ to counteract the negativity of microaggressions. A microaffirmation can be as simple as saying “thank you,” giving credit where it’s due and actively listening to others.

Research shows that practicing microaffirmations increases camaraderie and trust amongst coworkers, and that builds a positive and inclusive work environment to enhance retention and productivity. Employees who trust their company are 260% more motivated to work and 50% less likely to look for another job.

Being more mindful of our words and actions is essential in creating a more inclusive workplace where everyone feels valued and respected. The more awareness we have about how microaggressions show up, the more we can work toward decreasing them. When microaggressions are actively addressed and microaffirmations are regularly practiced, organizations can cultivate a culture where every individual thrives, regardless of their background or identity.

Traliant Insight

As HR leaders develop diversity and inclusion strategies and plans, it’s important to be proactive in addressing microaggressions that can undermine progress. Training is one of the actions organizations can take to raise awareness, stop microaggressions and encourage all employees to consider how their words and actions can contribute to positive change.

Click here to get a free course preview of Traliant’s Microaggressions and Subtle Acts of Exclusion training.


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Mark Hudson