Microaggressions in the Workplace: Ultimate Guide

By: | Updated: April 10, 2024

You found our ultimate guide on microaggressions in the workplace.

Microaggressions in the workplace are slight, usually unintentional, discriminatory actions or remarks that can negatively affect those on the receiving end. Examples of microaggressions at work include microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidation. Workplace microaggressions can lead to an unwelcoming atmosphere. This environment may foster a system of bias and prejudice, resulting in reduced productivity and job satisfaction.

To combat these conflicts, check out these articles on office allyship, inclusion moment ideas, and diversity training programs.


This article includes:

  • what are workplace microaggressions?
  • examples of microaggressions in the workplace
  • types of microaggressions at work
  • common microaggressions in the workplace
  • impact of microaggressions in the workplace
  • dealing with microaggressions in the workplace

Let’s get started.

What are workplace microaggressions?

Microaggressions at work refer to subtle, often unintentional acts or comments. These actions often show discriminatory or prejudiced attitudes toward individuals based on their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics. These actions can take various forms, such as snide remarks, stereotyping, exclusion, or invalidation of an individual’s experiences or identity. While not always overtly hostile, microaggressions can create a hostile and uncomfortable environment for those on the receiving end. Additionally, microaggressions can undermine an individual’s self-esteem, productivity, and overall well-being. Thus, organizations must foster an inclusive and respectful workplace culture. Firms should ensure employees are educated about recognizing and addressing these subtle forms of bias.

Types of microaggressions at work

Microaggressions at work come in various forms, such as microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Microassaults are explicit and deliberate acts meant to demean an individual based on their race, gender, or other characteristics. These actions can include racial slurs or sexist jokes. Microinsults are subtle but offensive comments or actions based on stereotypes or biases. These comments may involve dismissing a colleague’s ideas or abilities due to their background. Microinvalidations involve disregarding or denying an individual’s experiences or feelings, often unintentionally. For example, downplaying a coworker’s experiences of discrimination.

Recognizing and addressing these microaggressions is essential for creating a more inclusive and respectful workplace environment. Some individuals who engage in microaggressive behaviors may not realize they are making insensitive comments. For example, statements about a colleague’s socioeconomic status, race, religion, age, gender, sex, or disability reflect bias and insensitivity.

Some examples of microaggressions are as follows.

1. Microassaults

Microassaults happen when individuals intentionally and openly say or do things that are harmful and offensive, often based on an individual’s race, gender, or other personal characteristics. These actions can include using racial slurs, making sexist comments, or engaging in other forms of explicit discrimination. For example, indirect belittlement, racial slurs, and even the use of historically offensive symbols such as Confederate flags or swastikas.

Examples of microassaults include:

  • Using subtle derogatory language
  • Using derogatory racial phrases
  • Ridiculing a group’s clothing or cultural norms
  • Diminishing and intimidating behaviors
  • Displaying historically offensive symbols

Microassaults are hurtful and go against workplace professionalism and respect. It is important to address these actions to promote a more inclusive and harmonious work environment. 

2. Microinsults

Microinsults are subtle actions or comments that may not be as obvious as microassaults, but they still hurt and offend individuals based on their characteristics, like race or gender. These actions often involve conveying stereotypes or biases, which can make coworkers feel disrespected or marginalized. For instance, dismissing a colleague’s ideas or abilities because of their background is a form of microinsult.

Occasionally, these remarks may seem like compliments, but they can actually hurt recipients unintentionally. For example, an individual might say something that seems positive, like telling their colleague that they do not conform to negative stereotypes associated with their background. Microinsults can also take the form of exclusion, such as downplaying a woman’s confident speaking or disregarding her contributions. It is important to recognize and address these subtle forms of discrimination to create a fair and inclusive work environment.

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3. Microinvalidations

Microinvalidations involve minimizing the experiences of those who belong to marginalized groups. This problem often arises when individuals share their struggles related to their background. Then, those who may not share similar backgrounds respond in a way that dismisses, belittles, or even makes fun of their experiences. Surprisingly, even individuals within the same marginalized group might unintentionally engage in microinvalidation as they try to fit in.

For instance, when a worker says, “I don’t see color,” they are essentially downplaying the significance of a colleague’s racial identity. This statement ignores the uniqueness of team members, which is an important aspect of diversity. It is equally important to acknowledge how a colleague’s identity shapes their life experiences and choices.

Examples of microaggressions in the workplace

Seeing the examples of microaggressions can further explain the concept. Below are instances of common workplace microaggressions.

“Where are you originally from?”

This question is a common source of discomfort, serving as a prime example of a microaggression that creates a sense of “otherness.” The implication behind these words is that the speaker views people of color as outsiders or foreign in some way. These subtle comments reinforce the feeling of being disconnected from mainstream society.

“Could you handle taking care of lunch?”

One case of microaggression arises when there is an expectation that women should take on traditional household responsibilities while at work. A similar situation occurs when a person of color in a managerial role is asked to do clerical work, or when a woman is assigned to set up a meeting room. It is not unusual for all team members to pitch in with administrative tasks. However, the issue arises when one individual, often the sole woman or person of color on the team, appears to be consistently assigned such roles by default or more frequently than others.

“You’re really good with technology for your age.”

This comment has an understated assumption that a colleague’s age could affect their tech skills. By saying this, speakers suggest that they do not generally expect a particular age group to be proficient with technology. This statement can be offensive because it perpetuates stereotypes based on age. Thus, this assumption undermines the individual’s accomplishments by linking them to their age rather than their hard work and knowledge.

“Why are you so emotional?”

The concept of tone policing rests on the biased belief that certain individuals communicate more passionately than others. Even if these workers are attempting to share important information, others may label their tone as hostile or unprofessional. These comments imply that other workers are not allowed to express their true enthusiasm, anger, or positive emotions, fearing that they will be misunderstood as aggressive or overly sensitive.

“Can I touch your hair?”

Requesting to touch a colleague’s hair is inappropriate. The problem with such questions lies in the focus on highlighting perceived differences. Additionally, these questions can create self-consciousness about natural hair, leading some to wear wigs to conform to the “norm.” Furthermore, this question invades personal space, which is unprofessional and disrespectful.

“You have really impressive diction.”

While these words might seem harmless or even complimentary, their delivery and context can make individuals from diverse backgrounds feel as if their fluency in the language is unexpected. This comment highlights how the speaker might have assumed the worker’s proficiency would be different from what it actually is. The underlying assumption in this statement is where the issue lies, and it is an inaccurate belief.

​The Bottom Line

There are no methods that are foolproof for identifying workplace microagressions. What workers interpret as a microaggression depends on the recipient, the nature of the relationship, the tone of the statement, the setting, and other considerations. It is vital to talk to peers and really try to get to know each other, but it is also crucial to learn about microaggressions and avoid making statements that fit under this umbrella.

Workers can be honest and have genuine conversations with marginalized individuals. The key is to be willing to take in new information and be up front about needing clarification on what constitutes disrespect. If colleagues hurt a worker’s feelings inadvertently, then they need to own their mistake and make amends.

The impact of microaggressions in the workplace

Individuals who do not face marginalization daily may not realize the prevalence and hurtful nature of microaggressions. Microaggressions can have a significant impact on individuals and the overall work environment.

Here is how microaggressions can affect the workplace:

  1. Microaggressions can lead to feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety, and sadness among those who experience them. These emotions can harm an individual’s sense of belonging and well-being, affecting their mental health and job satisfaction.
  2. Targets of microaggressions might become preoccupied with the negative experience, leading to reduced focus on work tasks and decreased productivity.
  3. When microaggressions go unaddressed, they can create tension and conflict within teams. The affected individuals might feel excluded or isolated, causing a breakdown of effective teamwork and collaboration.
  4. The stress caused by microaggressions can affect an employee’s ability to perform at their best. This impact can lead to errors, missed deadlines, and an overall decline in job performance.
  5. Employees who consistently experience microaggressions may leave the organization for a more inclusive and respectful work environment. This process can result in a high turnover rate, which is costly for companies in terms of recruitment and training.
  6. Microaggressions can hinder the professional development and advancement of marginalized individuals. Feeling undervalued and unsupported can discourage employees from pursuing promotions and leadership positions.
  7. Organizations that fail to address microaggressions risk creating an unwelcoming atmosphere for diverse talent. This feeling can hurt efforts to attract and retain employees from different backgrounds, limiting diversity and innovation.
  8. In some cases, unchecked microaggressions can escalate into more overt forms of discrimination. These actions can potentially lead to legal issues for the organization. Additionally, a reputation for fostering a hostile work environment can harm an organization’s image and brand.
  9. Microaggressions can contribute to a toxic culture where discrimination and disrespect are normalized. This negativity damages employee morale and affects the company’s overall culture and values.

Addressing the impact of microaggressions requires active efforts from both individuals and organizations. Providing education, training, and clear policies on diversity and inclusion can help create a more respectful and inclusive workplace environment.

Dealing with microaggressions in the workplace

The following are tips on handling incidences of microaggression at work.

1. Identify and Validate the Microaggression

The first step toward addressing a microaggression is recognizing and validating it. It is important to validate individual feelings or those of the microaggression target. Minimizing or ignoring the incident can lead to feelings of confusion, invalidation, and isolation.

2. Document Thoughts

Recording the emotions regarding the issue can be a productive exercise.

Consider addressing questions like:

  • Can you recall a microaggression you have encountered?
  • How did the situation make you feel?
  • What impact has the incident had on your well-being and self-assurance?
  • If you could convey a message to the individual who marginalized or stereotyped you, what would it be?

Understanding the personal impact of the issue and identifying uncomfortable actions is essential for finding a satisfactory resolution. Recipients of microaggression recognizing that they are not alone in facing this form of hostility might provide a sense of solace. Another advantage of maintaining a record of microaggressions as they occur is having concrete instances to reference when discussing the matter.

3. Address the Microaggression

Dealing with a microaggression may be challenging, especially when the aggressors are a group rather than individuals. Singling these workers out or finding an effective response can be tough. There is also the concern of potential repercussions from management or colleagues, making it hard to find a trustworthy confidant at work.

If recipients of microaggression feel comfortable addressing the behavior directly, then it is often the most suitable approach. This method shows a willingness to resolve the issue without making it worse. Victims can let the aggressor know how their actions have affected them, like saying, “When you talk over me in meetings, I feel like my input is less valuable. I would be happy to answer any questions after I’ve finished speaking.” This kind of response maintains a professional tone and emphasizes the expectation of an apology and a change in behavior to resolve the situation.

However, some instances of microaggression may require escalation. If coworkers are unable to resolve the issue among themselves or are not safe to do so, then it might be time to involve superiors or HR. At this stage, it is important for the company to have safe reporting channels and solutions in place to protect the worker experiencing microaggressions.

4. Seek Assistance from Human Resources

In cases of more severe discrimination, ongoing distress due to aggression, or persistent hostility, reaching out to the human resources department is the appropriate step. Scheduling a meeting with an HR professional specializing in conflict resolution and management within the organization is ideal.

When seeking guidance on handling a particular situation, the HR specialist can help monitor or address the issue. Unless the violation is severe enough to warrant termination, a single intervention may not resolve this type of situation. HR experts can create strategies that effectively address the aggression.

How to avoid microaggressions in the workplace

To foster a more inclusive and respectful work environment, here are a few steps that can help prevent workplace microaggressions.

1. Promote Open Dialogue and Training

Encouraging open conversations about microaggressions and their impact can be a powerful way to prevent them. Leaders can provide opportunities for employees to engage in discussions, share their experiences, and learn from one another. Additionally, holding regular diversity and inclusion training sessions can help employees recognize and avoid microaggressive behaviors.

2. Address Microaggressions Promptly

A proactive strategy for combating workplace microaggressions involves directly addressing them when they occur. This tactic requires regular monitoring for instances of microaggressions and responding promptly. The outcome is a work environment with a zero-tolerance stance on microaggressions.

3. Monitor Language and Conduct

Reducing microaggressions in the workplace involves closely examining words and behavior to detect possible microaggressions. Workers need to give careful thought to what they say and do. Understanding the possible effects of words and actions is just as important. This approach helps reduce the risk of unintentionally causing harm.

4. Reflect on and Evaluate Biases and Assumptions

To address workplace microaggressions, individuals must foster self-awareness of their biases and assumptions. This process involves a critical examination of individuals’ points of view. It is equally crucial to gain an interest in understanding different perspectives. This approach helps avoid assumptions about those from various backgrounds and demographics.

5. Learn About Microaggressions

To prevent microaggressions in the workplace, it is crucial for workers to expand their understanding, as well as that of their colleagues, about this issue. One way to learn about this topic is through books, articles, or blogs. Participating in seminars or workshops is another avenue to consider. These steps will lead to a deeper understanding of microaggressions and their impact.


Microaggressions in the workplace can have significant impacts on employees’ mental health, productivity, and overall job satisfaction. Employers need to understand what microaggressions are and how they manifest and take proactive steps to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace environment.

For leaders and HR professionals, fostering a culture of inclusivity and respect is crucial. This step could involve holding diversity training programs, encouraging open communication, and creating systems to handle such situations. A proactive approach to dealing with microaggressions can lead to a healthier and more productive workplace.

Next up, check out these articles on DEI books, how to show empathy at work, and company culture books.

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FAQ: Microaggression in the workplace

Here are frequently asked questions about microaggression in the workplace.

What is microaggression in the workplace?

Microaggressions at work are subtle and often unintentional acts of discrimination or bias aimed at marginalized groups. These actions can create an unwelcoming atmosphere. Examples include making assumptions about a colleague’s abilities or background based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Additionally, microaggressions could show up as using offensive language or excluding a colleague from opportunities due to their identity. Recognizing and addressing microaggressions is essential in creating a workplace that is inclusive and respectful, ensuring the well-being of all employees.

What are the examples of microaggression in the workplace?

Some examples of microaggression in the workplace may include microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidation. It is important to pay attention to these behaviors and work toward creating a safe and inclusive workplace for all employees.

How can you handle microaggression at work?

Workers can take several steps to address workplace microaggressions.

Some of these methods include:

  • recognize and validate the aggression
  • put your thoughts on paper
  • confront the microaggression
  • reach out to HR

If you experience a microaggression at work, then it is important to address the situation calmly and tactfully. You should not be afraid to speak up if you experience any form of discrimination or mistreatment.

Author avatar


People & Culture Director at teambuilding.com.
Grace is the Director of People & Culture at teambuilding.com. She studied Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, Information Science at East China Normal University and earned an MBA at Washington State University.


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