How To Handle Microaggressions in the Workplace

By Jamie Birt

Updated 15 September 2022 | Published 29 August 2020

Updated 15 September 2022

Published 29 August 2020

Jamie Birt is a career coach with 4+ years of experience helping job seekers navigate the job search through one-to-one coaching, webinars and events. She’s motivated by the mission to help people find fulfillment and belonging in their careers.

Psychologist Derald W. Sue, author of 'Microaggressions in Everyday Life', defines microaggressions as, 'The everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalised experience in their day-to-day interactions with people'. Microaggressions can be obvious or subtle, intentional or unintentional and, over time, can have lasting effects on both individuals and communities. Because microaggressions can be so prevalent and often unnoticed in everyday life, it is important to understand how they can come up in the workplace.

It’s important to underscore that microaggressions are common. In fact, they are so common that you may not notice them if they’re not directed towards you, and there’s a high possibility you’ve said or committed a microaggression at some point. Sue explains, 'No one is immune from inheriting racial, gender and sexual orientation biases. Everyone, including marginalised group members, harbours biases and prejudices and can act in discriminatory and hurtful ways toward others'.

Microaggressions in the workplace can threaten the emotional security, performance and relationships to peers of its targets. Fostering an inclusive work environment is critical for employees and businesses as research indicates that strong feelings of belonging among employees are linked to a 56% increase in job performance and 50% drop in turnover risk.

Some examples of microaggressions in the workplace may include:

  • Telling a woman she’s bossy – Demeans a woman’s leadership and management skills

  • Scheduling important deadlines on a religious or cultural holiday – Communicates the prioritisation of Australian-dominant holidays (Easter, Christmas, etc.) exclusively

  • Claiming you have OCD because you’re organised – Minimises the experience of people who struggle with OCD

  • Asking questions such as, 'Where are you from? No, where are you really from?' – Assumes that someone was not born in Australia and makes them feel like an outsider

  • Calling someone he or she without knowing their preferred pronoun – Risks referring to someone in a way that incorrectly reflects their gender identity

How to decide whether to address the microaggression

Psychologist Derald W. Sue talks about the 'catch-22' of confronting microaggressions. On the one hand, if you don’t confront the microaggression, the outcome can lead to disappointment in yourself, regret and resentment. On the other hand, if you choose to confront the person, it could lead to defensiveness, denial and additional confrontation. All this is to say, the decision to address the microaggression is difficult.

Dr. Kevin Nadal created a helpful list of questions to ask yourself when deciding whether or not to confront the microaggression:

  • If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?

  • If I respond, will the person become defensive and will this lead to an argument?

  • If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person (e.g. co-worker, family member, etc.)

  • If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?

  • If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behaviour or statement?

Making the choice to address the microaggression is personal, situational and worth considering before confronting it. The workplace is more formal than a gathering with family members or friends, so below are helpful tips on how to handle microaggressions in the workplace.

Addressing a microaggression directed at you

Dr. Nadal has defined the three ways of responding – passive-aggressively (making a sarcastic remark or rolling your eyes), proactively (yelling or having an emotional reaction) or assertively (calm discussion or educating). While other responses may be appropriate depending upon the situation, the assertive approach may be useful in most contexts at work.

Being the recipient of a microaggression can be emotional and stressful. It might be tempting or even feel cathartic to respond passive-aggressively or proactively; however, in the workplace, the assertive approach is likely to have the best outcome and lead to a constructive conversation. To use the assertive approach, consider the following:

  • Calmly address the perpetrator through the use of 'I' statements (e.g. 'When you said this, I felt hurt') and education (e.g. 'This hurt me because…'). Doing so can help the other party understand how their microaggression has affected you directly in a clear and straightforward way.

  • Consider taking time to collect your thoughts before addressing the individual. Contemplate whether it would be more helpful to talk to them in person or write them an email. Let the individual know what was said, how and why it hurt you. Keep in mind that saying something like, 'You are racist' has the potential to make the individual defensive, while saying 'What you said earlier was offensive and racially charged because…' has the opportunity to lead to a more productive conversation.

  • Finally, recognise the importance of self-care. After experiencing a microaggression you may consider reaching out to a trusted co-worker, a loved one or mental health professional to process the experience. Dr. Nadal explains, 'In doing so, individuals may avoid accumulating negative and detrimental feelings, which may affect their mental health'.

Addressing the microaggression as an ally

Part of being an ally in the workplace is speaking up when you witness the oppression of a marginalised group. The tips for addressing the microaggression for an ally are the same as the tips above with a few variations.

First, if you do not belong to a marginalised group it may be harder for you to spot a microaggression. If you think you witnessed a microaggression but aren’t sure, you may consider talking to a trusted co-worker about the situation, especially if they were present when the comment was made.

Second, as you are not part of the group being marginalised by the comment or action the individual may not view you as having the 'credit' to confront the microaggression. This is where the education piece of the assertive approach will come into play. Since the microaggression did not hurt you individually, it can be constructive to educate the individual on how the comment or action could have been racially or discriminatorily charged.

Related: 5 Steps To Become a Better Ally at Work

What to do if you’ve communicated a microaggression

As we mention, microaggressions are common. It’s not unlikely that you’ve committed a microaggression before and may commit one again in the future. As humans, we make mistakes, and in these moments it’s helpful to maintain a growth mindset.

If you recognise that you did or said something that could have negatively impacted a marginalised group, take responsibility for it and genuinely apologise. You may consider apologising to the individual/s affected privately, so as to not draw any more attention to them in what could already be an uncomfortable situation.

There may also be times when you are unaware you committed a microaggression and someone confronts you. If this is the case, try to be open to the feedback without getting defensive. If you respond to the confrontation with a statement like, 'That’s not what happened. I’m not racist', you could be making the situation worse by minimising the individual's experience.

Instead, consider acknowledging their pain, reflecting how your comment or action was offensive, and thanking them for bringing it to your attention. Taking the conversation seriously will allow you to grow as an inclusive co-worker, in turn making the workplace a more inclusive environment.

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