Examples of Microaggressions in the Workplace: The Ultimate Guide

Are you familiar with the term microaggression? If not, you’re not alone. The term is fairly new and, until recently, hasn’t received much attention. But that’s changing, with more and more people speaking out about their effects on both individuals and organizations. This post will explore some examples of microaggressions in the workplace and offer a few tips on how to deal with them. Stay tuned!

What are Microaggressions in the Workplace?

First, let’s check the microaggression in the workplace definition.

Microaggressions are subtle, intentional, or unintentional actions or comments that communicate a negative message to a targeted individual or group. They can take many forms, but all serve to reinforce an unequal power dynamic and create a hostile or unwelcome work environment.

The term microaggression was first coined in the 1970s by psychiatrist Dr. Chester M. Pierce, and it has been gaining popularity in recent years due to the growing awareness of the issue.

Types of Microaggressions

Examples of microaggressions in the workplace range from microinsults and microinvalidations to microassaults. They can all be put in three basic categories: verbal, behavioral, or environmental. We will now touch upon each type and provide examples for each.

Verbal Microaggressions

A verbal microaggression is a statement that is offensive or disrespectful to a marginalized group. For instance, a co-worker might say, “you’re not like other black people,” to compliment the person’s intelligence.

However, this statement implies that the speaker believes black people are generally less intelligent than other groups, which is a harmful stereotype and an example of racial microaggression in the workplace.

Another common form of verbal microaggression is using derogatory terms to refer to a marginalized group. For example, instead of saying “gay people,” someone might say “f*gs” or “dykes.”

This might seem like a small thing, but it sends the message that the speaker doesn’t see the group as equal to others and is one of many microaggression examples at work based on sexual orientation. Verbal microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional, but they typically result in the person feeling uncomfortable, hurt, or excluded.

Behavioral Microaggressions

Behavioral microaggressions can take many forms, such as making assumptions about someone’s abilities or cultural background, using offensive language, or failing to acknowledge someone’s accomplishments.

A white co-worker asking a person of color to touch their hair or skin is a behavioral microaggression and an example of microaggression at work based on race. This action communicates that the white person sees the person of color as different or exotic, and it can make the target feel uncomfortable and self-conscious.

Environmental Microaggressions

These microaggressions are a subtle form of racism occurring when people exhibit bias against certain groups based on their environmental preferences or habits. For instance, someone might assume that all Asian Americans are good at math. These assumptions can be harmful and lead to further discrimination.

Examples of Microaggressions at Work

Microaggressions in the workplace can be based on race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, disability, socioeconomic class, and citizenship status. Because they are the most common forms, we will now touch upon a few examples of microaggressions in the workplace based on race, gender, and age.

Racial Microaggressions in the Workplace

Racial microaggressions are assumptions about someone’s abilities based on their race or ethnicity. Let’s look at some examples:

  • assuming that a person of color is not knowledgeable about American history or culture
  • making comments about someone’s appearance that are racially or ethnically offensive
  • making assumptions about a person’s job title or responsibilities based on their race or ethnicity, e.g., assuming that a person of color is only in the company to clean up or do manual labor
  • offering unsolicited advice about how someone can “improve” their appearance to conform to white beauty standards
  • asking an Asian person if they speak English
  • telling a Native American that they are “lucky” to have a job/home/etc

If unaddressed, microaggressions can amount to bullying in the workplace. According to the most recent bullying statistics, over 90% of workers have experienced bullying at work. In the US, 30% of workers experience bullying. At 53.8%, Hispanics are bullied the most of all races, followed by Whites at 47%, Blacks at 45%, and Asians at 32%.

Gender Microaggressions in the Workplace

Gender microaggressions refer to assumptions about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Here are some common examples:

  • refusing to acknowledge or use someone’s preferred pronoun
  • making assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity
  • using offensive or derogatory terms for someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation
  • telling a woman she is “too emotional” or “needs to calm down”
  • assuming that a woman is in her role because she’s good at multitasking
  • telling a gay man he “doesn’t look gay” 

Age Microaggressions in the Workplace

Age microaggressions are assumptions about what an older or a younger person can or cannot do based on their age. It is important to mention that not only older generations experience age microaggression and ageism at work, but millennials as well. According to the recent statistics about millennials in the workplace, 36% of younger millennials (under 32) have experienced ageism at work.

Examples of microaggressions in the workplace based on age:

  • assuming that older workers are not as technologically savvy as their younger counterparts
  • making comments about an older person’s appearance in a negative way (this can include comments about wrinkles, gray hair, or weight gain)
  • asking an older worker when they’re going to retire
  • assuming a younger person to be inexperienced or naïve
  • assigning all of the grunt work to the millennials on the team
  • telling a millennial that they’re “too young” to understand or have an opinion on something

How Can Microaggressions Be Harmful in the Workplace?

Though microaggressions may seem harmless, they can have a profound impact on their targets, leading to feelings of exclusion, anxiety, and resentment. Moreover, having microaggressions at work can create a toxic environment and hinder productivity. 

When employees feel they are not respected or valued, it also decreases their motivation and engagement. In contrast, according to recent motivation statistics, employees who feel appreciated are 4.6 times more likely to perform better.

In extreme cases, microaggressions can even lead to taking legal action. Consequently, companies need to be aware of the potential consequences of workplace microaggressions and take steps to prevent them.

How to Prevent Microaggressions in the Workplace

Businesses must acknowledge and focus on addressing microaggressions in the workplace to show that such actions won’t be tolerated and that individuals who exhibit that kind of behavior will be held accountable.

The first step is to create a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination of any kind. Next, employers should clearly communicate this policy to all employees. Additionally, leaders should offer regular workplace microaggression training to help their workers become more aware of these incidents and how to avoid them. Finally, employers should always take action when they receive microaggressions reports. 

Taking these steps can create a more inclusive workplace and reduce the incidence of microaggression at work.

Dealing with Microaggressions at Work

If you’re dealing with microaggressions in your workplace, you can do the following:

  • Try to identify the source of workplace microaggression. This can help you understand why it’s happening and what you can do about it.
  • Talk to someone you trust about what’s going on. This can help you get some perspective and develop a plan for dealing with the situation.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel you’re being mistreated. Report any incident to your superiors. You have a right to be treated with respect, and you shouldn’t have to tolerate microaggressions.

The Importance of Creating a Safe and Inclusive Work Environment for All Employees

Employers are responsible for creating a safe and inclusive environment for all employees. Unfortunately, not all workplaces live up to this standard. Moreover, creating a pleasant work environment is good for business. According to the recent employee burnout statistics, diversity in the workplace can decrease the level of stress among employees.

Acknowledging examples of microaggressions in the workplace and addressing them is the first step toward creating a work environment where all employees feel appreciated and welcome. Those who feel comfortable and respected are more productive, and companies that foster a diverse workforce can better compete in today’s global marketplace.