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Microaggression Maladies in Workplaces

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

"It hurts whether they meant to do it or not."
S. Calvo, Therapist

In the 21st century, also known as the age of globalization, employers recruit talented, skilled, and competent workers regardless of their distinct life experiences. Consequently, workplaces have become ethnically, socially, and culturally diverse, as employees bring their values, codes of conduct, and attitudes. Regrettably, such a work environment also creates multiple maladies, and one such is microaggressions.

Managing microaggressions at workplaces has become a critical and challenging issue. Employers and employees need to understand how their biases, attitudes, and beliefs impact workplace issues and create inequities. The cost of ignoring such issues affects efficiency, reputation, turnover rate, and productivity. For organizations to remain competitive and relevant, it has become crucial to understand, manage, and address microaggressions.

What are Microaggressions?

The prefix "micro" to the word "aggression" implies subtle, discreet, intentional or unintentional, verbal or nonverbal snubs and indignities directed at marginalized individuals and groups. American Psychological Association defines these as:

"Everyday derogations, slights, and invalidations that are often delivered to people of a minority or marginalized backgrounds." Discriminatory messages of hostility are usually directed at victims' characteristics such as gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexuality.

Dr. Sue, an authority on microaggressions, stated in Scientific American: "the everyday slights, insults, put-downs, invalidations and offensive behaviors that people of marginalized groups experience in daily interactions with generally well-intentioned people who may be unaware of their impact."

A few examples of microaggressions at the workplace are:

"I do not see color when I hire people." It denies the realities of people of color.

"I have several Asian-American co-workers." Identifying workers by race rather than by work competencies.

"For an immigrant, your language skills are good." Assuming immigrants not to be so articulate.

The main characteristics of microaggression are as follows:

Such discriminatory attitudes and behavior are learned in early childhood from one's family, community members, public media, and leaders. Unless actively and judiciously handled, these can harm all concerned.

History of the Term Microaggression

Chester M. Pierce, a Harvard Psychiatrist, first coined the term microaggression in the 1970s to describe subtle racial discrimination and insults that Black people experienced from their white counterparts (Harvard Business Review, 2022). Mary Rowe, an MIT economist, extended the term to include aggressions against women (Micro-inequities).

Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University expanded the term to include hostilities and discrimination against socially and culturally marginalized groups. (Microaggression). At present, it represents discriminatory behavior, attitudes, and actions towards communities that are not perceived as part of mainstream society.

Prevalence of Microaggressions at Workplaces

"An older male colleague interrupted me in a meeting and said, 'now, young lady...' and then told me how I was incorrect in his opinion." - Jillesa Gebhardt.

Microaggressions at workplaces are very prevalent and often go undetected. Unless addressed, employees and employers get used to such actions and do not realize the indignities they are inflicting on one another.

In partnership with SurveyMonkey, Fortune's survey on Microaggressions at workplaces in 2019 showed that 68 percent of Americans say it is a serious problem. The survey recipients also indicated that disrespectful actions would make them leave their jobs. It is estimated that losing a skilled employee costs a company about 33% of one's annual salary. So, it is a high price to pay for insensitive words and actions.

McKinsey's report of 2020 on diversity and inclusion in the workplace also found that "84 percent of all respondents have experienced workplace microaggressions." Further, this report cites that women, racial, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ members experience more indignities than others. Thus, it is vital to understand the various types and forms of microaggressions.

Types and Forms of Workplace Microaggressions

Due to their subtle, discreet, and sometimes unintended nature, microaggressions can be hard to identify and label. However, Dr. Derald Sue has classified such indignities into three types: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation.

Microassaults are often conscious, intentional, verbal, nonverbal, and environmental humiliations, such as displaying racist, supremacist symbols, avoiding inter-racial contact, telling a racist joke, and saying, " I was just joking."

Microinsults are often unconscious rude, insensitive, and depreciating sayings that humiliate others, such as asking a marginalized community member, "did you get this job through a quota or affirmative action?" In addition, assuming a short Asian doctor to be a nurse and a tall white male to be a doctor reduces one's identity, dignity, and self-esteem.

Microinvalidations are often unconscious communications that negate, exclude, or nullify the realities of others. For example, a White employee asks non-white employees where they were born, not assuming they have been in the United States for multiple generations.

Other incivilities that show up in workplaces, as documented in the Women in the Workplace 2018 report, are some of these:

Gender-Based: More women experience indignities at workplaces than men.

"For 64% of women, microaggressions are a workplace reality. Women have to provide more evidence of their competence than men and are also 2x as likely to have been mistaken for someone in a more junior position." Black women experience more hostilities, and their judgments are often questioned.

Sexuality Centric: Lesbians experience more snubs: 71% of them heard demeaning remarks, and they cannot freely discuss their lifestyle.

People are also judged on their physical appearance, weight, parental status, skin color, and age. Age-Related snubs impact older and as well as younger employees. For example, it is assumed that old-age employees are not adept at technology, while younger employees are not serious about their work.

McKinsey's Global Survey states that 59% more ethnic or racial minorities report having experienced a given microaggression than others in the workplace.

In addition, environmental aggressions are equally prevalent as women are not considered on par with men for leadership positions. Consequently, women have to deal with the glass ceiling and glass cliffs. Such actions minimize one's identity and make them insignificant. Eventually, such actions impact one's health and job satisfaction.

Effects of Microaggressions in the Workplaces

Microaggressions: "Death by a Thousand Cuts." - Donald Sue

The everyday slights, insults, and offensive behavior cause psychological and physical harm. shows that "microaggressions negatively affect the individual's mental, emotional, and physical health. Over time, these microaggressions create inner conflict and chronic stress; this only increases their risk for the onset of traumatic stress symptoms and depression."

McKinsey's Global Survey on Diversity and Inclusion cited in the National Association of Colleges and Employers states: that 45% of ethnic or racial minorities have chosen not to pursue a job because of a perceived lack of inclusion.

Research also shows that individuals who experience microaggressions mistrust others, which leads to "confusion, anger, anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, frustration...which lead to negative coping mechanisms, such as denial, withdrawal, and substance abuse." Consequently, employees may develop self-doubt as,"Am I overreacting or being too sensitive?" or, "Maybe, I don't belong here." However, workplace microaggressions can be addressed and managed.

Addressing Microaggressions

Ignoring and pushing minor or major aggressions "under the rug" usually leads to long-term issues. Thus, addressing microaggressions is more critical than ever and a challenge for leaders and workers to enhance workplace productivity.

Dr. Sue and his team members' suggestions state that "micro-interventions" are the best tools to handle because "for too long, acceptance, silence, passivity, and inaction have been predominant, albeit ineffective, strategies for microaggressions." Instead, responses should "(a) make the invisible visible, (b) disarm the microaggression, (c) educate the perpetrator, and (d) seek external reinforcement and support." These suggestions signify taking a proactive approach.

Dr. Nadal, a well-known authority on this topic, has developed a tool kit called A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions. It lists questions to ask oneself when responding to microaggressions.

In addition, any successful response should be three-pronged and should incorporate: (1) Company/Organization Policies, (2) the role of leaders and managers, and (3) Human Relations (HR) personnel and employees.

Company policies should reflect a lack of biases in workers' selection, placement, growth, and promotions. They should also provide guidelines and standards for maintaining the psycho-social environment, including handling conflict resolution and interpersonal issues.

Leaders' and managers' roles are vital, as highlighted by Michelle King in Forbes: "Leaders are accountable for microaggressions because every day they get to decide what behaviors in their team will be rewarded, endorsed, accepted, or called out."

Human Relations (HR) leaders should facilitate conversations, generate awareness, and create equitable, inclusive teams and programs. They should call out employees that perpetuate biases and discriminatory behavior. In addition, HR leaders should develop training about cultural differences and racial sensitivities. For example, if some of the foreign employees have a similar physical appearance, that does not mean they are from the same country and speak the same language.

In addition, empowering individual employees to handle microaggressions when they happen is also one of the best approaches. Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and the Association of College and Research Libraries have provided some vital suggestions:

Educating all concerned parties on how to handle microaggressions is a practical step forward in reducing and eliminating discriminatory actions that impact productivity and quality of work.


It is challenging to overcome and eradicate people's long-held beliefs, attitudes, implicit biases, and prejudices. Despite one's best efforts, these behavioral characteristics show up in one's daily workplace dealings with people of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and lifestyles. However, by critically analyzing company policies, conduct, and attitudes of leaders and workers, microaggressions can be minimized if not eliminated. Employers need to grasp that, particularly during times such as the Great Resignation, they cannot afford to overlook the company's culture and its psycho-social environment.

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