Diversity & Inclusion

How to Recognize, Stop Microaggressions at Work

“Death by a thousand cuts.” That’s what microaggressions feel like to the affected individual. Read on to learn how to recognize and stop the indignities from happening in your workplace.

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What are Microaggressions?

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University professor and pioneer in the field of cross-cultural studies, defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.”

The “micro” in microaggressions doesn’t refer to the behavior’s impact. Rather, it signals microaggressions are personal interactions and slights. On the other hand, “macro” refers to systemic racism (i.e., institutional systems and structures that have the effect of disadvantaging certain groups).

Harvard-trained psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce first coined the term “microaggression” in the 1970s to describe commonplace insults and slights directed at Black Americans. He theorized that over time, being regularly subjected to microaggressions could negatively affect their physical and mental health.

Research into microaggressions expanded. The evidence revealed they include slights based not only on race but also gender, age, sexual orientation, and other protected classes. Google Trends shows there was a sharp spike in interest after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 sparked a nationwide conversation about race and racism.

While renewed interest in the term is a recent development, the concept isn’t new. Workplace microaggressions form the factual basis of many Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 lawsuits. Employees who experience microaggressions at work may have lower job satisfaction, higher incidents of absenteeism, and more turnover.

Fortune Magazine study showed 68% of workers in the United States consider microaggressions to be a serious problem in the workplace. While only 10% of respondents admitted to committing microaggressions in the past, 36% said they had witnessed the incidents in the workplace, and 26% revealed they had experienced the events themselves.

Addressing microaggressions in the workplace is not only a good practice for improving morale and increasing retention but also critical for reducing the likelihood of employment law claims.

Types of Microaggressions

There are three main types of microaggressions.

Microassaults. Someone engages in intentional discrimination, bullying, or insensitivity. Examples include using racial slurs, telling racist jokes, displaying offensive symbols, and mocking a group’s cultural norms. Microassaults commonly form the basis of discrimination and harassment claims.

Microinsults. Someone intentionally or unintentionally demeans another person based on the individual’s protected class. Microinsults can be intentional or unintentional and are sometimes couched as compliments. Examples include:

  • Asking a person of color how they got into an Ivy League school;
  • Assuming a woman is working in a secretarial role;
  • Avoiding saying someone’s name because it’s unfamiliar;
  • Expressing surprise that an older employee is skilled at using computers;
  • Commenting that a black colleague is so articulate;
  • Complimenting an Asian colleague’s English; or
  • Reassuring someone they aren’t like a negative stereotype imposed on their culture.

In each case, the perpetrator is acting on assumptions based on a person’s membership in a culture or protected class. The comments send the message: “It’s surprising that a member of your group is successful” or “you don’t belong here.”

Microinvalidations. Someone intentionally or unintentionally excludes, ignores, or discredits a person based on their membership in a culture or protected class. One example is expressing color-blindness by making comments such as “I don’t see color” or “there is only one race: the human race.” The statements may have the effect of dismissing a person’s racial identity by sending the message their race and culture are unimportant.

Likewise, comments on meritocracy can be microinvalidations such as “everyone can succeed if they work hard enough” or “I succeeded by pulling myself up by my bootstraps, not by sitting back and waiting for a handout.” The comments dismiss the structural barriers many people of color experience and can send the message that “people of color are given unfair advantages.”

What to Do About Microaggressions in Workplace

Because many microaggressions are unintentional, it’s important to educate managers and employees about how to recognize and avoid them. Be sure your business has a solid equal employment opportunity policy and a procedure for employees to report concerns.

Consider hosting training sessions to help employees recognize and avoid microaggressions. Since many people commit them without intending to offend or even in a misguided attempt to compliment someone, there’s an even greater need for training.

Leaders, managers, and HR personnel should educate themselves about microaggressions and take action to challenge and stop them when they see them. One strategy is to ask perpetrators what they meant when they said something. Here are examples:

  • “Why did you press Sangeeta to tell you where she is from?”
  • “Could you explain what you meant when you told Reggie that he’s not like other people from Detroit?”

Sometimes forcing people to confront the thought process behind their comment is enough to make them realize the statement was offensive. When confronted, employees may become embarrassed or defensive. You may find it helpful to explain why the actions were unacceptable while also recognizing it wasn’t their intent to offend.

The conversations may be uncomfortable but can ultimately lead to a more inclusive, engaged, and committed workforce. Being proactive about stopping microaggressions isn’t just a good idea for preventing legal claims. It’s also an investment in employee satisfaction and success.

You can reach Emily Chase-Sosnoff, counsel in FordHarrison LLP’s Tampa, Florida, office, at echase-sosnoff@fordharrison.com.