Many microaggressions are subtle, but they can still harm marginalized employees and create a toxic work culture.

Over the past few decades, companies have taken significant steps to improve workplace diversity. From increasing diversity education for employees and leaders to hiring dedicated diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) managers, these changes all highlight the importance of creating equitable work environments for people in marginalized communities.

But even with these initiatives, one issue still seems to be ever-present in workplace settings: microaggressions.

Microaggressions are statements, actions, and other behaviors that intentionally or unintentionally show prejudice toward people in marginalized communities.

Some microaggressions may be subtle, such as invalidating or insulting statements about someone’s race, ethnicity, or religion. But other microaggressions are more obvious, bordering on overt discrimination in some situations.

The workplace is one of the most common settings in which people report experiencing microaggressions. Millions of people in marginalized communities frequently, if not constantly, face these types of behaviors in the workplace.

When we talk about microaggressions, we can categorize them into three types of behaviors:

  • Microinsults are rude, insensitive comments that are disrespectful toward aspects of a person’s identity, such as their gender, language, or ethnicity. Microinsults can be intentional or unintentional.
  • Microassaults are generally intentional behaviors aimed at deliberately hurting or harming marginalized people. They can sometimes be subtle, but at other times these behaviors are obvious displays of prejudice and discrimination.
  • Microinvalidations are conversations or statements that invalidate the experiences or identities of people in marginalized groups. Microinvalidations are common in professional spaces such as workplaces and healthcare settings.

Microaggressions often target aspects of a person’s identity, such as appearance, ethnicity, gender, and language.

Here’s an example of what this behavior can look like in the workplace:

A Black pilot is sitting around a conference table with several of her colleagues at her first annual Aviation Training Summit. During the conversation, the topic of job security comes up, and the Black pilot mentions how difficult it was for her to break into this industry.

One of the white pilots at the table comments, “As a woman, it was such a struggle for me to break into this industry too. I know exactly how you feel!”

Even though the white pilot likely said this in solidarity, it has an element of invalidation. Compared with white women, Black women typically face additional barriers to employment, especially in industries where gender gaps already exist.

Here are a few more examples of what these behaviors can look like in a workplace setting:

  • commenting on how good a colleague’s English is after assuming that they’re a non-native English speaker based on their ethnicity
  • assuming that a female colleague is acting “sensitive” or “harsh” by speaking up about something that makes her feel uncomfortable
  • interacting or otherwise engaging with a disabled colleague’s mobility aid or other equipment without their consent or permission
  • using the wrong pronouns for a trans colleague and becoming upset with them when they correct you on which pronouns to use
  • engaging in a confrontation with a colleague who has a known mental health condition and calling them things like “crazy” and “insane”

Obviously, these are just a few examples, but these behaviors can affect any marginalized group, including women, LGBTQIA+ people, disabled people, neurodivergent people, and people who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC).

What is the difference between microinequities and microaggression?

Microinequities are similar to microaggressions in that they involve unconscious or conscious discriminatory behaviors against marginalized people. However, microinequities are small events that send subtle messages of prejudice and discrimination, especially in the workplace.

Microinequities can be verbal, such as words, phrases, and conversations, or nonverbal, such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. A white colleague consistently talking over their Black colleague and a male manager refusing to maintain eye contact with their gay male employee are examples of microinequities.

These messages typically ignore, overlook, or single out people in marginalized communities in workplaces, ultimately devaluing or impairing their work.

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Experiencing microaggressions in the workplace can have a huge impact on a person’s work performance, overall mental health, and more.

One small study from 2018 explored the impact of race and ethnicity on the work experiences of minority resident physicians.

According to the study, minority residents reported experiencing microaggressions from other residents, leadership, and even patients. Many of these experiences led to increased stress, burnout, and other negative mental health effects.

In a study published in 2019, researchers explored the impact of microaggressions on peer support specialists, mental health workers with lived experience supporting others through recovery.

More than 38% of the workers surveyed reported experiencing frequent microaggressions related to mental health or their role as a peer support specialist. These behaviors left many of the workers feeling isolated and seeking their own support, with some going as far as to leave their jobs.

In a recent study published in 2023, researchers explored the impact of intersectionality on microaggressions toward female workers. Intersectionality is the concept of an “intersection” of multiple identities, such as being female, Black, and LGBTQIA+.

Of the 117 female physicians in the survey, 84.6% reported experiencing microaggressions. These microaggressions were associated with negative effects such as changes in work behavior and feelings of impostor syndrome.

So, where do we start to address these behaviors in the workplace? Ultimately, the change has to come from both employees and employers.

If you’re an employer or manager, implementing diversity training and programming that provides education on these topics can be helpful. But action is where real change happens, and as a leader in the workplace, you’re responsible for setting an example of what a respectful and inclusive workplace environment looks like.

As an employee, it’s important to be conscious of the way you speak to and about your colleagues. Many times, microaggressions are unconscious and unintentional — but that does not mean they aren’t harmful.

If you’ve experienced a microaggression at work, here are a few ways you can respond:

  • Take a moment to consider how you want to respond to the situation. If you’re able to calmly address the situation right now, that’s OK ― and if not, consider stepping away until you’ve decided how to respond.
  • Ask for clarification if you’re not sure of the intent behind the behavior. Consider opening up the floor for discussion so you can express how the comment or behavior made you feel.
  • Educate the other person on why their behavior was inappropriate or harmful, if you have the space and energy for it. Try to avoid personally attacking the other person and focus only on their behavior and actions.

Depending on the situation, you may also want to document the incident with your manager or a human resources representative. In many cases, companies already have initiatives in place on how to address these types of behaviors if you feel unsafe.

Microaggressions in the workplace can have a hugely negative impact on marginalized people. Even though these behaviors may seem subtle and harmless, they contribute to effects such as institutional mistrust, decreased self-esteem, decreased job satisfaction, and burnout.

Companies have an obligation to implement and enforce policies that protect the rights and dignity of all employees — and the best way to do that is to celebrate diversity and strive for equity in the workplace through education and action.