November 17, 2020

The term microaggressions has come into the mainstream as HR leaders seek to improve diversity, equity and inclusion and cultivate a sense of belonging among all employees. Microaggressions in the workplace are subtle slights, snubs or insults — whether intentional or unintentional — that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages about a co-worker’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, weight or other characteristic.

Microaggressions may appear to be harmless or even sound like a compliment, but these seemingly innocent behaviors contain demeaning hidden messages that are often based on unconscious biases. When microaggressions persist, people on the receiving end may feel judged, misunderstood, excluded, unwelcome and unsafe. These feelings can negatively impact their mental and physical health, employee engagement, morale and overall productivity.

What are different forms of microaggressions?

Microaggressions can take many different forms. The three main categories are verbal, nonverbal and environmental.

  • Verbal microaggressions – A verbal microaggression is a comment or question that belittles members of a certain marginalized group 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 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 or holding a handbag closer to one’s body when a person of color approaches. 
  • Environmental microaggressions – Environmental microaggressions occur on a systemic level, such as a work environment that belittles women or makes marginalized or underrepresented groups feel unwelcome.

Other examples of microaggressions include:

  • Always asking a co-worker with a disability if they need help.
  • Using offensive terminology such as, “That’s so gay.”
  • Disparaging remarks or gestures about ethnic food in the lunchroom.
  • Criticizing the gender identity of a transgender person.
  • Always assigning women the task of taking meeting notes or making coffee.
  • Failing to give credit or downplaying the ideas and work of marginalized employees.

Constructive ways to respond to microaggressions

Even folks with the best intentions can make mistakes and inadvertently say or do something hurtful. That’s why microaggressions training is among the workplace practices that can help individuals understand what microaggressions are, how to identify and respond to different types and strategies to prevent them from reoccurring.

For targets of microaggressions, training offers insights and practical tips for deciding when and how to react. Whether responding immediately or later, it’s important to stay calm and explain to the microaggressor why their comments are offensive. The idea is to help the perpetrator become more aware and empathetic, without putting them on the defensive.

For people who may be bystanders of microaggressions, training helps prepare and motivate individuals to be allies to targets, who are often dismissed as being overly sensitive. Using different bystander intervention techniques, allies in the workplace can be more successful in explaining to microaggressors why they find their behavior offensive. Underrepresented people should also be empowered to be an ally to members of their group, and support other marginalized colleagues who may be struggling.

Training can also help people who regularly commit microaggressions be more aware of their behavior and its harmful effects on others. Beyond raising awareness, training can reinforce the value of listening, learning and understanding the feelings of co-workers with different backgrounds and experiences.

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.