in the Workplace
Over the last ten to twenty years, overt aggression and discrimination against members of minority and marginalised groups has gradually largely disappeared. However, it has been replaced with more subtle behaviour called microaggressions. The problem here is that this behaviour is often subconscious and unintentional, and therefore harder to identify and address.
This page explains more about what we mean by microaggressions, and the different types of microaggressions that you might see or experience. It also provides some strategies for dealing with microaggressions in a constructive and respectful way.
What do we mean by microaggressions?
The term microaggressions dates back to the early 1970s, when it was coined to describe the behaviour of White Americans towards Black people. In 1973, it was used to describe behaviour towards women, and has since become a more general term.
What is a microaggression?
“Microaggression is a term used for commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups.”
“Indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.”
There is therefore agreement that microaggressions are common and happen often: they are everyday behaviours and experience. They may also be intentional or unintentional. They are a form of discrimination and show negative attitudes towards marginalised groups.
Microaggressions often emerge from unconscious biases, so you may find it helpful to read our page on this issue.
Types of Microaggressions
There are three main types of microaggressions:
Microassaults are explicit behaviours or language that are designed to hurt a person or group. They include put-downs, name-calling, bullying or belittling, mocking someone’s background, or using offensive language or symbols. These are most often seen in race-based situations, and include actions like displaying a swastika or using racial slurs.
Microinsults are comments that suggest that the recipient’s demographic group is not respected, but that they may be an exception. These comments are generally rude or insensitive, or demean someone’s abilities or heritage. Examples include asking someone “No, where you are really from?” when they say that they are British, saying “You don’t look Jewish”, or asking how a woman got her job, implying that it may have been because she is female.
That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.
Caption from a Punch cartoon of a boardroom.
Microinvalidations are communications that negate the experience, feelings or reality of someone from a marginalised group. Examples include using the phrase “All Lives Matter” to replace “Black Lives Matter”, or saying “I’m a bit OCD” because you like your desk to be organised, which downplays the problems of having a mental illness.
Microaggressions may not sound like very much. You may be tempted to suggest that people should just “suck it up”.
However, over time, the effect of microaggressions on individuals and in a workplace build up. They can eventually create a hostile climate and culture, devalue social group identities, lower productivity, and even result in health problems such as depression or anxiety.
Ultimately, microaggressions show a lack of respect—and people feel that.
It is therefore important to address and reduce microaggressions, to ensure that all your colleagues feel valued and able to contribute effectively.
Responding to Microaggressions
The first and perhaps most important strategy is to acknowledge that microaggressions happen all the time. Pretending that they don’t happen is, in itself, a form of microinvalidation.
Once you have recognised the situation, then it is possible to act on a general level to reduce the problem. If you have managerial responsibility, try to develop a climate of open and honest conversation, so that team members feel comfortable coming to you with problems. It is also worth encouraging people to attend awareness or competence training, to increase awareness of the issue.
Another aspect is to be aware of your language and how others around you speak. Many of the words and phrases in common use may have negative gender- or race-based connotations. It is worth taking time to review how you speak and write, to ensure that you use neutral language (see box).
Using neutral language
A number of common words and phrases have gender or race implications, including the terms whitelist (positive) and blacklist (negative), policeman, fireman or chairman (which imply that only men can do those jobs) and phrases like ‘Man up!’.
Instead, it is better to choose alternatives such as pros and cons or negatives and positives for blacklist and whitelist, firefighter, police officer, chairperson, and “be brave!” as an alternative for ‘man up’.
There is also a subtler form of neutral language, about the terms you use to address someone or talk about them. Would you describe your male manager as ‘bossy’, for example, or use the term ‘sweetheart’ or ‘love’ to a man, or ‘dude’ or ‘mate’ to a woman?
The key is to consider if you would use the same form of language or term if you were talking about or to a man or a woman. If you would not—then it’s time to change your language.
You may find our page Gender-Neutral Language in Writing useful too.
Strategies for Responding to Microaggressions
It may be worth using different strategies for responding to microaggressions depending on whether they are targeted at you, or you see them happening to someone else.
It is also important to remember that the purpose of addressing microaggressions is not just to address that specific event or person. Instead, it is about creating a climate where everyone feels valued and able to contribute.
If a microaggression is targeted at you:
Decide if you want to engage, report or ignore. You might, for example, be more inclined to engage if it is a colleague who has never said anything unpleasant before, than if it is a random visitor or customer. You can also choose to report it to your line manager or HR, or simply ignore it.
Questions to ask when deciding whether to engage
Psychologist Kevin Nadal developed a list of questions to ask yourself when deciding whether to engage. They are:
- If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?
- If I respond, will the person become defensive, and will this lead to an argument?
- If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person?
- If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?
- If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behaviour or statement?
This is not a hard-and-fast list, but it may help you to balance the advantages and disadvantages of possible responses.
Take a positive approach. It is generally best to assume that there was no malicious intent, and approach any response from that perspective.
Be assertive rather than aggressive, passive-aggressive or emotional in your response. If you decide to respond, whether directly or via a report to someone else, an assertive approach is generally best. You can find out more in our pages on assertiveness.
Use good practice on giving feedback to respond. Pick your moment to respond, but make sure that it is timely. Focus on their behaviour, and the effect that it had on you and how you felt. Be as specific as possible about what they did that was a problem, and why.
Document the incident, just in case you need to provide evidence later. This should include your response and any reaction to it.
If you don’t want to say anything, consider talking to a trusted colleague or friend later to process your feelings and ensure that you’re OK.
If a microaggression is targeted at someone else:
Speak up when you see inappropriate behaviour being targeted at someone else. Don’t wait for someone to be upset, or someone else to comment.
Pick the right moment to say something. It may not be appropriate to call someone out on the spot, especially if others are around—or it may be more appropriate to do so then and there. It really depends on the situation and the people involved.
Don’t be tempted to use sarcasm or mockery. Keep it simple and straightforward, and encourage the right behaviour instead of condemning the wrong one. If possible, ask questions to make them think, rather than risk coming across as judgmental (remember that the natural tendency when challenged is to deny).
If you find it hard to speak up in the moment, consider reporting it to your line manager or to HR. This might be the case if the perpetrator was someone very senior, or perhaps a customer, and you don’t feel that it was your place to comment. However, it may be helpful to report it, especially if this is part of a repeated pattern of behaviour.
There is more about how you can support people from marginalised groups in our page on allyship.
If you realise that you have committed a microaggression:
Before responding, pause. It’s natural to feel defensive when someone calls you out on inappropriate behaviour, so take a moment to review what you did.
If necessary, ask for clarification. If you’re really not sure what the problem was, then ask for more information. Listen to what they say, and check that you have fully understood the situation.
Acknowledge and apologise. You may not have meant to be offensive—but there can be a gap between intent and impact. Impact is what matters here.
Thank the other person for telling you. As with any feedback, you should always thank the giver for taking the time to provide it.
Go away and educate yourself. It’s fine to ask for clarification about the event itself, but don’t expect your colleague to take responsibility for educating you. Instead, go away and do your research to find out more about why your behaviour was a problem.
A Final Thought
Microaggressions are unpleasant, and a form of discrimination that show a lack of respect for others. However, it is important to respond to them in a constructive and respectful way. Otherwise, you are simply lowering yourself to the level of those who have perpetrated the microaggression. The key to increasing respect for all in the workplace is to demonstrate it in action, not to beat up others who fail to show it.