Microaggressions are subtle but insidious forms of discrimination. They can inflict profound harm on workers' wellbeing and contribute to burnout, reduced job satisfaction, and resignations.
Exclusionary behavior like microaggressions is often aimed at marginalized groups. It might target a person’s race, gender, sexuality, parental status, socioeconomic background, mental health, etc., and tends to be inflicted on underrepresented groups.
Seventy-three percent (73%) of people that identify as being from a minority group have experienced microaggressions at work.
While some people criticize present-day society and younger generations for being hypersensitive to casual remarks and jokes, research shows that these statements have a negative effect on physical and mental health.
Fifty-seven percent (57%) of people that quit their jobs in 2021 did so because they felt disrespected at their companies.
In this post, we’ll look at the negative effects of microaggressions in the workplace and explore best practices to avoid them. We’ll also highlight the importance of adopting a skills-based approach to recruitment and how it can help reduce bias among leaders and create a more supportive work environment that prioritizes all your employees' wellbeing.
Note: This blog contains personal stories from people who wished to remain anonymous, so some names have been removed and people are identified by their first initial only.
Microaggressions are comments or actions that can sometimes appear innocuous but imply subtle bias or judgment of the person they’re aimed at. These attacks can be intentional or unintentional and can happen in any form of conversation or interaction.
Microaggressions are often hard to spot and stop because they can easily fly under the radar as a “throwaway” comment or joke.
Almost half of the population has experienced microaggressions at work and ethnic minorities are usually on the receiving end. This leads to an inconsistency between how White people experience the workplace compared to Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
There are three different forms of microaggressions:
These are comments that aren’t usually intended to hurt but can still be rude or insensitive.
For example, P, a female Argentinian HR coordinator at a multinational company walked into the office one day wearing a long skirt and a T-shirt. “The head of payroll looked at me up and down and said ‘Oh, hi, love the funny outfit choice. You’re always wearing the funniest clothes’. I just wanted to go home and change,” she says.
These are deliberate comments or actions that, while they might be subtle, are intended to hurt. The story of Ricardo, a Venezuelan cook at an Argentinian burger shop shows what a microassault may look like in practice:
“The manager told us that we could take home a few burgers because an order was canceled. The next week he showed us a video of us taking the burgers home and accused us of stealing. He didn’t talk to Argentinian workers about it; he just called me and my friend from Colombia to his office. There were five of us in the video.”
This can be conscious or unconscious and involves not taking the feelings or ideas of a person or group into account.
L, an Argentinian male, experienced this in his role as a digital marketer at a multinational company when his manager called him out for not meeting a target in front of his team. When someone said, “Maybe you should address this in your 1:1s,” the manager responded, “It’s fine, he can take it, he told me he never cries.”
Intentional or otherwise, microaggressions can negatively impact employee wellbeing.
It’s known that people perform better when they feel like themselves at work, trust their colleagues, and have psychological safety. Microaggressions cause the opposite effect because, when people feel at risk of subtle attacks based on who they’re, they tend to:
Overwork to avoid giving managers or colleagues reasons to make nasty comments and risk burnout
Put less effort into their work because they’re sure they’ll get called out anyway or simply don’t feel motivated by the company or team culture
Stop trusting their peers, managers, and company’s intentions
Leave their jobs and look for other opportunities where they’re valued 
Microaggressions can also affect people’s physical and mental health.
A, a female Costa Rican employer brand manager, shares her story: “My manager told me I was ready to be promoted and everyone was happy with my performance. He said I was going to be the next promotion in the department when he could get the budget approved. I had a panic attack in the office bathroom when he called for a meeting to tell us he promoted someone else – a guy with performance issues and a bad reputation.”
Microaggressions cause workers to feel angry and powerless, especially when comments are so subtle that they can leave you wondering if you’re simply overreacting.
“I freelanced for a guy once that used to tell me ‘You’re completely wrong’, ‘I completely disagree with you’, and ‘That doesn’t make sense’. He didn’t explain why or what he had in mind, it made me feel really angry. I was constantly looking for other jobs,” says M, a female Venezuelan brand manager at a startup.
Now you know the harm microaggressions can cause, let’s take a look at how you can stamp them out.
We’ve covered the importance of reducing microaggressions in the workplace and how they can damage psychological safety, people’s wellbeing, and even increase employee churn.
Here are five best practices that will help you limit and deal with this form of exclusionary behavior:
The biggest issue with microaggressions is that it’s hard to point them out. Sympathetic colleagues or leaders might struggle to intervene and act because it’s hard to be sure if a comment is discriminatory or hurtful or not. The people on the receiving end might also not want to make a big deal out of their gender, neurodiversity, race, or sexual orientation.
To overcome this, train employees and managers in cultural competence and sensitivity and how to identify and tackle unconscious bias. You should also give training on how to make and handle complaints or give feedback to the aggressor.
Another way of promoting awareness is by creating opportunities for your people to get to know each other. This helps employees understand who they’re working with and where they’re from, which can limit unintentional microaggressions.
For example, it’s very common for people from different ethnic backgrounds to be misidentified, which still counts as a form of racism.
U, a male Pakistani front-end developer at a company that makes time-tracking software, says: “In 2020, people kept asking me if I was okay after Cyclone Amphan, which had affected India. But I’m from Pakistan. Another time, I said I disagreed with a proposal and my colleague said ‘Oh, I forgot it’s Ramadan, you must be bitter because you’re hungry. Sorry for being insensitive. What time do you eat?’ I’m not even religious.”
Implement a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination and design and establish a strategy to train everyone on the topic so they take the policy seriously. You can also design a process to inform employees on what to do if they experience microaggressions.
As an example:
The victim gives direct feedback to the person who made the inappropriate comment
If nothing changes, the next step is for the victim to go to their manager
If still nothing changes, the victim can go to the aggressor’s manager or directly to HR
The manager or HR talks to the aggressor directly and ask them to attend the appropriate training or awareness course
If HR gets repeated complaints, it opens an investigation
If the allegations are verified, and the aggressor’s actions or comments are found to be threatening the wellbeing of people in the group, you might decide to terminate that person’s contract
Get your people to share their insights on the process and consult with your culture committee or affinity group to implement a fair policy and decide the best guidelines to put in place. Asking your employees for feedback on the policy will also help you determine what constitutes a microaggression. It also shows them you’re listening and take their wellbeing seriously.
Relying on resumes, connections, or alumni networks to hire employees can lead to a homogenous workforce. This can perpetuate bias and leave those who are in the minority open to microaggressions if a few people look or act differently or come from a different background to the majority.
One way to make your organization more inclusive is by using objective, bias-free recruiting methods like skills-based hiring. This lets you test skills and hire people based on what they can do, not who they know, how they look, or where they’re from.
Removing biases from the recruitment process like this helps you build a more diverse workforce, which should reduce the number of microaggressions.
Our 2022 State of Skills-Based Hiring report shows that more than 91% of companies using this hiring method saw an increase in diversity and retention – which suggests people feel happier in a diverse workplace.
You can also use talent assessments to test people’s soft skills, personalities, or potential to add to your culture rather than simply fit in with the status quo. Do this by using tests like the Big 5 (OCEAN) Personality test or the Leadership and people management test. Use the results to recruit people who score highly in traits like empathy, positive attitude, emotional stability, and openness – and avoid hiring a workplace bully.
Making the shift to skills-based hiring also lets you promote people or offer options for internal mobility based on their demonstrated soft and hard skills. You can use talent assessments to identify skills gaps and test skills acquisition following training before an employee makes an upward or lateral move.
P, a female Indian graphic designer at a marketing agency, says: “In many companies, they promote people based on performance. But managers rarely do the hands-on work, so they need to have strong soft skills. If all a manager knows how to do is the operative work, they end up micromanaging instead of helping their teamwork and develop their unique skills.”
When you achieve a more diverse workplace, it naturally becomes more inclusive. Everyone is different, so it’s harder for there to be a majority and a minority, which helps reduce the chance of microaggressions.
To build a more diverse and inclusive workplace, you should:
Recruit people using fair, unbiased methods like skills-based hiring
Look for culture add rather than culture fit
Take a zero-tolerance policy toward discrimination
Encourage people to speak up if they witness or experience discriminatory acts, and have processes in place to do this anonymously
All these practices ensure your workers are more aligned with your diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts, but it has to extend to leadership too.
If people in positions of power don’t believe in D&I, it can make employees question whether it’s just a checkbox or “woke washing.”
M, a female Argentinian, used to work as a brand coordinator at a big pharmaceutical that promoted lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) inclusion. “At lunch, one of the team leaders said, jokingly, that lesbians ended up in hell. He didn’t know I had a girlfriend at the time. I then avoided all personal conversations with him and stopped believing in the company’s D&I efforts. I didn’t feel comfortable being open about my sexual orientation at work,” she says.
Your company’s culture is key to making people feel safe and supported. However, it can be hard to determine who’s responsible for building and maintaining it.
While guidelines and D&I efforts are usually top-down, everyone is responsible for building the culture and holding colleagues accountable for their behavior.
Although 67% of workers see themselves as allies, only 36% have spoken up after seeing discriminatory acts. This means you should build a culture that empowers everyone, including allies, to raise their voices and report violent acts.
You can promote a supportive culture by:
Creating affinity groups (also known as employee resource groups) and culture committees to advocate for underrepresented groups and build an inclusive culture
Making it easy for people to report microaggressions with anonymous feedback forms
Encouraging leaders to participate in affinity groups or become diversity advocates
Giving training on workplace behavior and what’s considered microinsults, microassaults, and microinvalidations
Ensuring psychological safety so people can point out microaggressions
There’s nothing “micro” about exclusionary practices like insults, invalidations, or aggressions in the workplace. These microaggressions can severely impact your employees’ well-being, performance, and company culture.
Minorities and underrepresented groups are usually on the receiving end of these aggressions, which, while sometimes unintentional, can cause them to feel discriminated against.
To eradicate microaggressions, you can implement different strategies. Start by promoting awareness and speaking openly about what constitutes microaggressions. Then, implement a zero-tolerance policy toward aggressive comments or acts and establish a procedure and channels to report these behaviors.
You can also build more diverse and, therefore, inclusive teams by ditching biased traditional hiring practices in favor of skills-based hiring. This lets you hire and promote the right people based on their skills and competencies, not their background, appearance, etc. Talent assessments can even evaluate what a candidate can add to your company culture.
In companies where everyone is different, people tend to be more understanding of others and inclusive, which reduces microaggressions. Additionally, when you hire and promote employees based on their skills, you can ensure that those who reach leadership positions have the right soft skills to be inclusive, empathetic, and respectful of all your employees.
Put a stop to microaggressions with skills-based hiring.
Find people with the right soft skills and personality to contribute to a more diverse, inclusive workforce.
“The Most Surprising Microaggression Statistics And Trends in 2023” (2023) Retrieved on July 25th, 2023. https://blog.gitnux.com/microaggression-statistics/
“How Microaggressions Impact Mental Health” (2022). Retrieved on July 25th, 2023. https://www.adeccogroup.com/future-of-work/latest-insights/how-microaggressions-impact-mental-health/
“Majority of workers who quit a job in 2021 cite low pay, no opportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected” (2022). Retrieved on July 25th, 2023 www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/03/09/majority-of-workers-who-quit-a-job-in-2021-cite-low-pay-no-opportunities-for-advancement-feeling-disrespected/
“Share of employees suffering from a microaggression in the workplace in 2021, by country and ethnicity” (2022) Retrieved on July 25th, 2023. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1305143/microaggressions-workplace-by-country/
“Effects of Microaggressions” (2022) Retrieved on July 25th, 2023. https://www.ed.ac.uk/equality-diversity/students/microaggressions/effects-of-microaggressions#:~:text=Known%20effects%20are%3A,peers%2C%20staff%20and%20the%20institution
“Two thirds admit to not speaking up when seeing discrimination at work” (2022) Retrieved on July 25th, 2023. https://www.wates.co.uk/articles/news/descrimination-at-work/
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