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Address Microaggressions in the Workplace

Learn how microaggressions impact your employees and how to decrease their prevalence in a workplace

Brief Summary

Microaggression” has been used in academia since the 1970s but gained more popularity in 2020. Its casual verbal and behavioral, intentional and unintentional, indignities, snubs, slights, and insults against any socially marginalized group. It positions the dominant culture as the “norm” and highlight a person’s “difference” from the majority represented group. Rooted in unconscious assumptions and stereotypes, microaggressions are often committed by people unaware of the hidden harmful messages in statements that seem “innocent” to them.

There are 2 layers: conscious communication of the initiator and unconscious metacommunication sent to the receiver. Research distinguishes 3 subgroups of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, microinvalidations. They take 3 forms in the workplace: verbal (eg. asking “where are you really from?”), behavioral (eg. asking women to bring coffees), environmental (eg. not respecting gender pronouns).


Because initiators of microaggressions may not intend harm, they can seem neutral or positive to the speaker while they reinforce stereotypes that create exclusion. They have real damaging effects on individuals and can add up to macro problems.

They can be overt or subtle, which makes recognizing them even harder. They may be confusing, often leaving the recipient not certain why they are feeling hurt or offended. Microaggressions contribute to lower levels of belonging and psychological safety and they’re detrimental to diversity of thought. They’re sometimes called “death by a thousand cuts”.


Foster a growth mindset among leadership to encourage openness and learning rather than shutdown and defensiveness. Also, master 3 steps of “microintervention”:

1. Make the invisible, visible: show the perpetrator the harm caused by their comment / behavior.

2. Educate the perpetrator: Shift the focus from the intention to the impact. Show the perspective of the receiver to help the communicator realize how the comment / behavior inflicts harm.

3. Disarm the microaggression: steer the conversation away with more positive, validating words.

dei progress

Proposed Actions

If you experience microaggression:

  • Discern how much effort you want to put in addressing the microaggression. Don’t feel pressured to respond to every incident.
  • Disarm the perpetrator by inviting them a conversation and explaining that it can be uncomfortable for both of you.
  • Defy by challenging the perpetrator to clarify their statement or action.

If you witness microaggression:

  • Know what to look for: educate yourself about microaggressions.
  • Speak up: not on behalf of the target (don’t assume you know how they feel) but on your own behalf (“That made me uncomfortable”).
  • Reach out: when you see microaggression, confirm to a colleague that what they experienced was indeed inappropriate

Valued Guidance

Implementation Plan

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