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Understanding Microaggressions: What They Are And How They Affect The Workplace

Understanding Microaggressions: What They are and How They Affect the Workplace

Though coined in 1970, the term “microaggression” was not widely used until this decade.  Now, the term is so popular that Merriam-Webster added it to its dictionary in 2017.  Unfortunately, the term’s increased popularity has not lead to an increased understanding of the behavior it describes.  However, understanding microaggressions is a critical step that must be taken to build a diverse and productive team.

What Are Microaggressions?

While “microaggression” has many definitions, the one most commonly used comes from Dr. Derald Wing Sue, professor of psychology at Columbia University, and leading authority on microaggressions.  According to Dr. Sue’s research, “microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group.”  While this definition focuses on race, microaggressions can also be directed at a person’s gender, sexual orientation, religion, social class, or other personal characteristics.

According to Dr. Sue, microaggressions can be grouped into three categories.  Microassaults involve behavior such as name-calling, openly displaying racist or sexist materials, and similar behavior.  Microinsults include comments that knowingly or unknowingly demean or devalue a person based on his membership in a marginalized group. Microinvalidations are behaviors that tell marginalized persons that their feelings about racial incidents are unfounded and not worth considering.

No matter which category they fall in, microaggressions attack a person for characteristics beyond their control.

What Microaggressions Look Like in the Workplace  

Microaggressions can appear in a variety of situations.  While no list can include every microaggression, the following list includes some common workplace microaggressions:

  • Making the only female member of a team get coffee or take notes
  • Asking an Asian-American interviewee, “Where are you from?”
  • Wearing Confederate flag apparel in the workplace
  • Telling an African American employee that her name is “weird,” “unpronounceable,” or otherwise not acceptable
  • Remarking that an Indian-American worker’s traditional Indian lunch is “disgusting” or “strange”
  • Overlooking the contributions of marginalized team members during meetings
  • Telling an outsider that he doesn’t conform to the stereotypes associated with his group (e.g., “You don’t seem gay.”)
  • Using outdated terms for racial or ethnic groups, such as colored or Oriental
  • Stating or implying that female employees or employees of color were only hired as a result of affirmative action
  • Using identity terms in a derogatory manner (e.g., “That’s so gay!” or “They really gypped us on that deal.”)
  • Complimenting an outsider for not conforming to negative stereotypes (e.g., “You’re not as cheap as most Jews.”)
  • Making an outsider explain the actions of “bad” members of their group (“Why are those other Muslims always bombing things?” “Why are those Black Lives Matter kids always causing trouble?”)

Why Microaggressions Must Be Addressed Immediately

For a person in the majority, the behaviors listed above may seem like minor slights.  However, for people of color and members of other marginalized groups, these experiences are no small matter.  Beyond the moral obligation to treat others with dignity, addressing microaggressions in the workplace as soon as they occur is also good business practice for three reasons.

First, microaggressions reduce workplace productivity.  Researchers have consistently found that microaggressions cause psychological harm.  Dr. Sue has written, “Microaggressions create a hostile and invalidating climate for marginalized groups, saps their spiritual and psychic energies, and their cumulative nature can result in depression, frustration, anger, rage, loss of self-esteem, anxiety, etc.”  However, research indicates that happy workers are the most productive.  To lead a productive team, a leader must eliminate microaggressions.

Second, microaggressions can cause employee turnover.  A 2016 study found that 60 percent of workers would quit a job immediately if they felt emotionally unsafe due to harassment or offensive behavior.  Clearly, microaggressions so little to help a company build and keep a truly diverse and inclusive workplace.

Finally, microaggressions may lead to a lawsuit.  A single microaggression may not be legally actionable. However, repeated microaggressions, if unchecked, can grow into a hostile work environment.  The expense, negative press, and low morale that lawsuits bring can be avoided by creating a workplace where microaggressions are not tolerated.

Understanding microaggressions and their impact will help your company or organization attract and keep a diverse, productive, and happy team. To learn more about microaggressions, including how to build strategy and structure that sustains an inclusive culture, enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses. The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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