Microaggressions in the Workplace: How to Recognize and Deal with Them

woman cowering in a corner with a shadow depicting a yelling man

Microaggression is one of those words that we have heard more lately since its recent re-emergence in our common parlance. So much so that it was crowned Global Language Monitor’s word of the year in 2015. But it’s a term that Harvard University psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce coined in the 1970s to describe subtle insults and dismissals that black people usually received from non-black Americans.

Today’s use of microaggression has changed a little; it has expanded as the subtle, casual, and oftentimes unintentional comments, actions, and behaviors that express prejudiced attitudes against historically marginalized groups of people without any intended harm.

Microaggressions can happen in any setting such as a school, a social circle, a Facebook Group course. It’s also prevalent in our workplace. So how can you recognize a form of insult or any insensitive comments and actions when it’s so subtle?

What Is Microaggression?

According to Kevin Nadal, a psychology professor at John Jay College, we all have inherent biases that we don’t know we are receiving or even perpetrating. He added that the “micro” in microaggression doesn’t mean that these subtle prejudices that we are communicating will not have significant, real-world consequences. So, how can we recognize microaggressions?

Microaggression can be expressed in many subtle forms to the point that it is barely noticeable. Like, when an Asian receives compliments for speaking good English, albeit being born and raised in the U.S.A. Or when a black woman gets comments about her being too light-skinned to be black. Or when a transwoman gets told she looks like a real woman. Or when a Latino is walking peacefully, and some Karens start holding their handbags and pearl necklaces closer to them.

These are microaggressions. Some people may argue that people are becoming oversensitive and are being “snowflakes” for making microaggression happen when it’s just the natural order of things. But it’s not. These subtle hints of prejudice and bias are harmful, making people at the receiving end of it uncomfortable. And as we are working so hard to live in a more progressive world, it’s time we call a spade a spade. These are microaggressions.

But in a setting like our workplace, where we are encouraged to act professionally, it might be more challenging to recognize and call these things out. What’s the best way to deal with them?

Microaggressions in the Workplace

frustrated guy talking to a co-employee

It’s essential to know how to recognize microaggressions before deciding how to deal with them. Microaggressions can manifest in three different ways: verbal, behavioral, and environmental.

  • Verbal microaggressions are comments or questions that are stigmatizing and offensive. It’s when someone says to a female co-worker that she’s too smart for a woman, or when someone asks a gay co-worker who the male and female is in their relationship.
  • Behavioral microaggressions are actions that are inappropriate or discriminatory actions that assume stereotypes to be true. It’s when someone thinks an Asian co-worker is good at Math or when someone mistakes a non-white colleague as a service worker.
  • Environmental microaggressions are the lack of representation and diversity in society. It’s when someone excludes people of different ethnicity from executive positions or when there are no disabled-friendly facilities.

How Can You Deal with Microaggressions in the Workplace?

There are many ways you can go about dealing with microaggressions if you’re on the receiving end of it. Here are some of them:

  • You can let it slide for now. Sometimes, it’s not worth it, and allowing microaggressions to pass may seem like it’s the best approach because addressing them may be emotionally and mentally draining. It may not be the best approach, but consider yourself the bigger man or woman.
  • You can address it head-on. Calling out microaggressions can have benefits as you can discuss the details and the consequences of such hurtful actions while they are still fresh in the minds of everyone involved. This response could allow the behavior to be corrected if the other party is open-minded enough to listen.
  • You can address it later. Sometimes, it would be better to cool down from a microaggression that hurt you to avoid saying anything not carefully thought of. You can also wait for the right moment by discussing it in private, through an email, or at a later time.

A World Without Microaggressions

Although the world is becoming more open to candid conversations and discussions about microaggressions, the changes that we want to initiate in a society where these things are considered acceptable will take some time. While you should open a proper dialogue about it, it is entirely up to you if and when you want to speak up about it. Just remember that for microaggressions to stop, we need micro-actions, as well.


We're here to offer you practical wisdom and inspiration on how to lead a more fulfilling, purpose-driven, and sustainable life. We're committed to providing the information and guidance you need to unlock your full potential and make the most of every moment.

Scroll to Top