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How to deal with microaggressions in the workplace 

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We’ve all been on the receiving end of a backhanded compliment — something that should have been a pleasant phrase, but it sort of feels like an insult. 

Microaggressions often come in the form of backhanded compliments. 

And, while we can choose how we want to deal with these in our private lives, things can get a bit more complicated when we’re faced with microaggressions in the workplace. 

That’s why, in this blog post, we will: 

  • Define microaggressions, 
  • Illustrate microaggressions in the workplace with a few examples, and 
  • Offer useful tips on how to deal with microaggressions in the workplace.  

Let’s dive in! 

What are microaggressions?

Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions in his book Microaggressions in Everyday Life as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” 

These small, and oftentimes barely noticeable insults mostly come from our unconscious biases, making it even more difficult to spot them and correct ourselves. 

Types of microaggressions

When it comes to how they’re expressed, microaggressions fall into these categories: 

  • Verbal mechanisms, 
  • Behavioral mechanisms, and 
  • Environmental mechanisms.

In a general sense, microaggressions can be divided into the 3 major categories: 

  • Microassaults — Conscious and explicit derogations toward a member of a marginalized group (e.g. referring to women as “b*tches”), 
  • Microinsults — (Often) Unconscious insulting comments or actions that demonstrate insensitivity toward members of marginalized groups (e.g. the scarcity of professors and mentors of color in a university), and 
  • Microinvalidations — (Often) Unconscious comments, behavior, or environmental messages that exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or identity of people from a marginalized group (e.g. mistaking people of the same race).  

How do microaggressions impact our workplace?

A study on microaggressions in the workplace shows that 45% of professionals would be upset if they experienced a form of microaggression such as being addressed unprofessionally. Moreover, 30% of respondents said they would consider leaving their job as a result of these microaggressions. 

Microaggressions, therefore, have a significant impact on our workplace, in the following ways:

  • Microaggressions negatively affect employee mental health — Research on ethnic microaggressions shows a strong correlation between microaggressions and depression,  
  • Microaggressions decrease employee sense of belonging,
  • Microaggressions negatively impact employee career growth — Employee visibility, employee recognition, or any kind of professional achievement is hindered when microaggressions are present in the workplace. 

How to deal with microaggressions at work?

Having realized the immense impact microaggressions have in our workplaces, it’s important to learn how to recognize microaggressions at work and nip them in the bud. 

What to do when you’re the target of microaggressions in the workplace

Here are our best tips on how to respond when you are the one being targeted with microaggressions at work. 

Tip #1: Consider the context 

First things first, pause to consider whether the perpetrator is someone you’d like to (or need to) maintain a relationship with. If not, you can choose whichever type of response you want at the moment.

However, if the microaggression comes from someone you want to keep in your life, you need to take a more tactful approach. The best rule of thumb is to ask them to meet (in person or via a video call) to discuss the situation when you’re both ready. 

Tip #2: Criticize the microaggression, not the microaggressor 

One of the keys to overcoming and resolving microaggressions is to criticize the deed, not the doer. 

So, instead of accusing the perpetrator of being sexist or homophobic, for example, you can consider being assertive and explain to them how their statement or behavior made you feel.

Tip #3: Pick your battles

Addressing every microaggression you face is virtually impossible. Therefore, it’s important to know how to pick the battles really worth fighting. 

Before you let your social justice warrior take over in these moments, be sure that some basic conditions for healthy confrontation are met — e.g. your safety is not in danger and you won’t have any regrets if you decide not to speak up in this instance.  

What to do when you witness a microaggression at work?

Next up, it’s time to learn how to be a perfect ally to marginalized groups, i.e. — take action against bullies and microaggressors. 

Tip #1: Learn about microaggressions

The first order of business when learning how to become an ally to marginalized groups is to lean into empathy and educate yourself about different forms of microaggressions and how to recognize them. 

Tip #2: Make the invisible visible 

Once you get a good grasp of spotting a microaggression as it happens, it’s now time to call it out, but indirectly. 

Instead of speaking in the name of the target and/or directly attacking the perpetrator, your best shot at dealing with microaggressions as a witness is to simply ask for an explanation. 

Tip #3: Validate the feelings of the coworker who experienced a microaggression 

Finally, be sure to reach out to your coworker who experienced a microaggression and show understanding and compassion for what they’re going through. This helps reassure them that what they are feeling is valid, and that they are not overreacting or being hypersensitive. 

What to do when you’re the perpetrator of a microaggression at work? 

The problem with microaggressions is that they stem from our unconscious biases against people who are different from us. This, inevitably, means we have made some major mistakes and probably will in the future. 

So, to make sure we work on our mistakes and do our best to not repeat them, let’s learn the basics of how to proceed when you commit a microaggression at work. 

Tip #1: Pause and admit the mistake 

There are probably a million other things that will rush through your mind as you get called out for committing a microaggression at work, however, the first thing you should do is actually stop. Take a moment to breathe, collect your thoughts, and then do your best to admit the blame.

Tip #2: Listen and learn 

Use this opportunity to really listen to your coworker and learn from the mistake you made. It might be challenging to stay passive and not offer excuses while getting the deserved criticism. However, keeping an open heart and an open mind is your best chance to earn forgiveness and learn important lessons.

Tip #3: Apologize 

All that’s left for you to do is say you’re sorry for your actions and/or words. 

To do it properly, make sure to include these 3 main elements of a proper apology: 

  1. Address the hurtful comment or behavior,
  2. Acknowledge its impact on your colleague, and
  3. Commit to doing better.   

Further reading

This is just a summary of an article previously published on the Pumble blog.

To learn more about microaggressions, we recommend reading the full article: