How to Handle Microaggressions at Work

By Emma Hickey

Microaggressions take many forms. Sometimes it’s a seemingly simple question—”where are you really from?”—a brief comment, like “you should smile more,” or an unnecessary observation along the lines of “you don’t seem gay.” Sometimes, the person committing the microaggression might not even realize they’re doing it. Other times, they definitely realize it. Microaggressions can be subtle and they can be overt. It doesn’t matter the scale of the microaggression, the framing, or the intention of the person responsible—microaggressions are a form of everyday discrimination, are always damaging to the receiver, and contribute to a toxic workplace culture.

Christina Friedlaender defined microaggressions as “a new moral category that refers to the subtle yet harmful forms of discriminatory behavior experienced by members of oppressed groups” in her paper “On Microaggressions: Cumulative Harm and Individual Responsibility.” The paper “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life” defines racial microaggressions as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

Women, members of the LGBT community, and people of color are the most common targets of microaggressions. The 2018 Women in the Workplace report from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co surveyed 64,000 employees, as well as collected data from 279 companies that employ over 13 million people, and found 64% of women experience microaggressions in the workplace. Specifically, they found the following:

  • 36% of all women claimed to have had their judgment questioned in their area of expertise while only 27% of men reported experiencing this

  • 40% of black women claimed to have had their judgment questioned in their area of expertise

  • 37% of lesbian women claimed to have had their judgment questioned in their area of expertise

  • 31% of all women reported having to provide additional evidence of competency in their area of expertise as compared to 16% of men

  • 42% of black women reported having to provide additional evidence of competency in their area of expertise

(source: https://leanin.org/women-in-the-workplace)

The data confirms what we already knew to be true: microaggressions are pervasive. With February being Black History Month and March being Women’s History Month, now (but also always!) is a good time to combat and eradicate microaggressions from your workplace.

In order to stop microaggressions, you have to first understand where they come from. They’re motivated by unconscious biases, which is a term that refers to perceptions, stereotypes and beliefs that influence our actions and behavior towards people of various identities. So if you ask a person in New York where they’re really from, the unconscious bias you’re presenting is that you perceive them as an outsider in some way. If you tell a woman she should smile more, the unconscious bias you’re presenting is that women are expected to be pleasant at all times. If you tell a member of the LGBT community that they don’t seem gay, or queer, or trans, the unconscious bias you’re presenting is that it is not desirable to be gay, queer, or trans, and that all people with those identities behave in the same way. Offering unconscious bias training in the office can be a good first step towards educating your workforce and, by extension, eliminating microaggressions from the workplace.

Like all Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, undoing the harmful unconscious biases likely held by many folks on your team in order to combat microaggressions takes consistent and dedicated work. It’s not the sort of thing that can be checked off a list after one training sessions. Because it takes time, it won’t immediately eradicate microaggressions from your office. So what can you do in the moment, when you are the victim of, or a witness to, a microaggression? First, take a pause. This can be an infuriating experience, but as The Fairy Godboss points out, it’s best to respond calmly. If you feel comfortable, explain to the instigator of the microaggression the underlying assumption their comment was based upon. Tell them, “that implies that something about me makes you think I couldn’t possible be from New York and makes me feel like an outsider,” or, “that implies women should always be pleasant and smiling,” or, “that implies there’s something wrong with being gay.” It’s ok to say you’re offended. Unfortunately, in many cases the person who issued the microaggression won’t realize what they’ve done, and will need it pointed out to them. It’s ok to point it out. If you don’t feel comfortable with this level of confrontation, though, it’s best to speak with an HR person who can address the matter with the individual. Explain to your colleague in HR what the comment was, the context for the comment, and how it made you feel, so that there can be no misunderstanding around the effect it had on you.

Navigating microaggressions in the workplace can be challenging, but it’s important to speak up, especially as an ally so that the onus of combatting the microaggression doesn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of the person to whom it was directed. It’s also important to note that anyone can display microaggressive behavior, whether you’re the frequent target of such behavior yourself or a devoted ally. Forbes outlined the best way to avoid making microaggressions in their article,”The Microaggressions Still Prevalent in the Workplace,” by suggesting asking yourself the following question before speaking: “does the race, gender or sexual orientation of this person have any impact on the work we are doing in this moment or the conversation we are having? And if it does, is my comment respectful or presumptuous?” If the answer is “yes,” stop yourself, make note of your impulse to make that assumption in the first place, and adjust your behavior. Carry that lesson with you, and do better next time. The impact of microaggression aggression after microaggression, day after day, can be incredibly harmful, but it’s possible to put strategies in place for yourself and your team in order to create a more inclusive work environment.


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