Microaggressions in the Workplace

Definition: Microaggressions are statements, actions, or incidents perceived as indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of marginalized groups such as racial minorities, women, LGBT coworkers, immigrants, religious minorities, older workers, and others.


Trivializing Native Americans: “Good morning, Chief!”

Tech Ageism: “Young people are just smarter.” – Mark Zuckerberg (2007)

Co-workers with Disabilities: “How do you use the bathrooms here?”

Demeaning African Americans: “You don’t sound black over the phone.”

Male to Female: Calling her “Sweetie, Hon, Cutie”

Complimenting Foreign-born Co-workers: “But you speak English so well.”

With an LGBT Co-worker: “Bob, you’re not super-gay like those guys on TV.”

Microaggressions seem like “no big deal.” After all, they often come from well-intended co-workers. However, their effect is both othering and cumulative and should not be minimized. The analogy is to say that a little flick of someone’s finger against our shoulder is not really an assault. Although it can temporarily surprise and distract us, we eventually get back to work. However, imagine if that happens 20 times a day. At the end of the day, we go home with a small bruise on our shoulder. And the next day, the bruise isn’t healed, but the (unintended) flicks keep coming.  And then they begin to hurt. And affect our morale. And our performance.


How can we reduce microaggressions in the workplace?

       • By learning about the marginalization of co-workers not like us

       • By understanding that we all grew up with cultural blinders

       • By committing to making our workplaces safe and welcoming spaces

       • By practicing responses to microaggressive behaviors when we encounter them

If you have concerns about such behaviors at your place of work, contact us to learn about training programs that can help create a more welcoming and supportive environment for all.

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.