Microaggressions in the Workplace: What Are They and How to Respond
Sarah Brodsky / APRIL 19 2021

It’s obvious that being hostile toward others at work is wrong and could result in dismissal. And usually, the difference between acceptable behavior and aggressive behavior is pretty clear. It can be a bit trickier to draw the line, though, when it comes to microaggressions. Microaggressions often happen during casual conversation and because they aren’t big, dramatic actions, they can be hard to spot and address effectively.

Reviewing what microaggressions are and some strategies for responding to them can help you be prepared the next time you witness one.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are hurtful comments, questions, or actions that are directed at someone who’s a member of a marginalized group and that frequently happen in day-to-day life. They may refer to stereotypes, express a negative opinion of the marginalized group, or make the targeted person feel like they don’t belong. 

For example, suppose someone says to a female coworker, “Your husband is so understanding to let you work full-time when you have young kids!” This comment implies that a woman needs her husband’s permission to have a job and that her gender and status as a parent make her different from everyone else at work. Although it might appear upbeat on the surface, it reveals some negative attitudes about the woman’s identity. 

Microaggressions are seemingly small, everyday experiences. It’s possible to intentionally commit microaggressions, but they can also be accidental or arise out of ignorance or misunderstandings. 

Still, that doesn’t mean microaggressions aren’t harmful. When a person experiences microaggressions, they may be reminded of past traumas. Microaggressions may prompt valid fears of future harassment or discrimination. They can also prevent a person from feeling at ease in their environment, putting them at a disadvantage relative to their peers who don’t have to cope with microaggressions. 

In addition, some people encounter microaggressions again and again throughout their day. Even if one incident doesn’t look that bad by itself, it may be part of a more sinister pattern. The combined weight of multiple microaggressions can put significant stress on a person. It can make them doubt themselves or feel alone–an outcome that’s more likely if bystanders don’t recognize the seriousness of the problem and don’t come to their defense.

How to respond to microaggressions at work

If you notice a peer committing microaggressions against someone else at work, you should speak up. Otherwise, the person who’s behaving badly may assume that what they said or did was okay.

The best response depends on how severe the microaggression is. If the comment was subtle and the instigator seems genuinely unaware of the problem, you want to be less confrontational and engage them in dialogue. For example, let’s say your coworker Edward keeps asking another coworker, Nicolas, to translate random words from Spanish to English because Nicolas is from El Salvador. 

You can say, “Edward, you know Jessica and I also speak fluent Spanish. If you want to know what a word means, you could check with us sometimes, rather than asking Nicolas.”

If Edward responds, “I didn’t mean anything bad by it! It’s just that Nicolas is great at Spanish!” you could reply, “I understand, but he shouldn’t always be expected to answer these questions. Don’t you think it would be fair to give him a break from the quizzing? We shouldn’t act like it’s automatically his responsibility to teach Spanish vocab because of where he’s from.” At this point, a reasonable person will probably concede that he shouldn’t have singled someone out based on his country of origin.

If the microaggression is more overt or the instigator is aware that he’s acting out of line, you may need to be more direct. Suppose Jessica is Black, and you catch Edward commenting on her hair and asking to touch it. You might say, “Edward, that’s completely inappropriate. You need to stop. We should not be touching anyone’s body here. Please respect Jessica’s personal space.”

If you’re the target of a microaggression, you have a few options. You can call out the instigator yourself if you feel comfortable doing that. But if you don’t want to handle the situation on your own, that’s entirely understandable. In that case, you could let other coworkers know what you’ve experienced and ask them to back you up the next time something similar occurs. Alternatively, you can talk to your manager or HR. Finally, you can choose to ignore it if you think it was a one-time thing or if you don’t want to respond for whatever reason.

When to get your manager or HR involved

Many microaggressions can be handled between team members without help from anyone else. But if a certain person is routinely being targeted or if the instigator commits microaggressions frequently, it may be time to talk to your manager or HR. And you should definitely report microaggressions that escalate into a “macro” problem, like violations of your workplace’s code of conduct or outright discrimination.