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6 Min Read

How to Handle Microagressions in the Workplace

Claire Beveridge

“But… where are you really from?” “You need to man up!” “You people are so aggressive.” 

We’ve all heard phrases and sayings around the office that made us feel uncomfortable. Microaggressions in the workplace are a common problem. A 2019 study reports that more than a quarter of Americans have experienced a microaggression at work, and 60% say they have seen or potentially seen a workplace microaggression.

Chances are that microaggressions are happening in your place of employment, and as HR leaders, it’s your responsibility to create an inclusive workplace for everyone. Read on to learn more about how to manage microaggressions and what they look like in a work environment. 

What is a microaggression?

A microaggression is a behavior, action, or statement that indirectly, subtly, or unintentionally discriminates or communicates bias against a minority or marginalized group. 

Microaggressions are rooted in racial context but apply to many groups and are often based on attributes such as sexual orientation, gender, religion, or disability. For example, telling an Asian-American man who speaks English as his first language that his accent is “perfect” or exclaiming to an LGBTQ2+ woman that “You don’t look like a lesbian!” 

Microaggressions in the workplace invalidate people’s experiences and make work environments more hostile, leading to dissatisfaction and lower levels of employee engagement — two threatening behaviors that impact business performance.

What does microaggression at work look like?

A research paper by Columbia University that looked at allyship in the workplace broke microaggressions down into three categories.


Microassaults are often deliberate and intentional insults meant to cause harm. Examples of microassaults include name-calling, bullying and belittling, slurs relating to religion or sexual orientation, mocking cultural norms, and put-downs. 


Microinsults are verbal and non-verbal communications that subtly, indirectly, or unintentionally demean or belittle someone based on their identity. Often, a microinsult will be shared as a compliment or helpful thing to say by the perpetrator, whereas, in the eyes of the victim, it’s an insult. An example of microinsults is calling a woman “aggressive” when assertive or implying a BIPOC coworker got their job based on diversity quota. 


Microinvalidations are communications that reject, dismiss, exclude, or nullify another person’s experience, thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as valid, acceptable, or understandable. An example of microinvalidation is a woman sharing an idea during a meeting and a male coworker taking credit for the contribution, invalidating the woman’s opinion.

How to respond to microaggressions

If you overhear or personally experience a microaggression at work, how do you respond? Should you let the comment slide, or do you need to address the problem head-on? 

Sarah Watson, mental health professional and COO at BPTLAB, recommends facing the problem. She notes that “addressing microaggressions in the workplace is essential for establishing an inclusive and respectful environment that allows all employees to thrive.” 

But does every microaggression warrant a response? Consider these points before taking things further: 

  • What’s my relationship with this person? If I respond, how could this impact things? 
  • Am I compromising my physical safety if I respond? 
  • Will a response evoke a defensive reaction and lead to an argument? 
  • If I don’t respond, does that mean I acknowledge or approve the comment or action?
  • Will I regret it if I don’t say something?

How you respond will depend on the relationship, context, and situation, but keep in mind that people will likely feel attacked and respond defensively if they feel called out. Instead, opt for diplomacy, assume positive intent, and ask or explain the following: 

  • “Can you explain what you mean by that?”
  • “I don’t follow. So you’re saying ____?”
  • “When you say ____, I feel ____. Instead, can you ____?” 

If you’re unsure how to respond to workplace microaggressions, the best thing to do is note down the specifics of the interaction and talk to someone on the HR/People Operations team.

What to do if you’ve committed a microaggression

If a coworker explains or tells you that you’ve said something out of line that they consider a microaggression, you might get defensive, which is a natural reaction to being “called out.” However, the best thing to do is tap into emotional intelligence and follow these steps: 

  • Pause. Take a moment to reflect and realize that everyone makes mistakes. Microaggressions do not make you a bad person. 
  • Clarify. It’s okay to ask for more information if you’re unsure. A simple “Can you explain what you mean?” goes a long way. 
  • Listen. Seek to understand your coworker’s perspective, even if you disagree. To ensure you’re both on the same page, restate what your coworker told you. 
  • Acknowledge. Once you understand the microaggression, acknowledge the event took place. 
  • Apologize. Say you’re sorry, demonstrate your understanding of the situation, don’t make excuses, and explain the steps you’re taking to ensure it won’t happen again. 

Microaggressions at work: mitigation strategies and tips

Implement diversity and inclusion training

Diversity training isn’t just for leadership. Anyone can benefit from leveling up their DEI knowledge. So if microaggressions happen in your workplace, ensure all team members have completed relevant diversity training to explore strategies that foster empathy and cultural competence.

Explore your diversity, equity and inclusion statement

Organizations need to have policies, practices, and frameworks in place to address and prevent microaggressions in the workplace and provide guidance to create an inclusive work environment for everyone. 

Your company DEI statement should be a proclamation for building and maintaining a workplace where all employees feel included and respected. If you’re having trouble with microaggressions, revisit this document to ensure you’re staying true to your commitment, strategize ways to improve inclusivity, and implement clear policies against discrimination of any form. 

Hold open conversations and prioritize feedback 

To build a workplace free from microaggressions, creating an environment where dialogue is shared openly and freely without repercussion is essential. Leaders need to hold regular meetings with direct reports to provide a safe space for employees to express their concerns, and this comes through building deep manager/employee relationships. 

To help onboard performance management software that ensures leaders can schedule one-to-one meetings that facilitate open communication and conversation while prioritizing a culture of giving and receiving feedback. Encourage employees to speak up, ask questions, and raise concerns about the comments and actions they may experience or witness.

Microaggressions impact everyone from the C-Suite to the cleaning staff, so organizations must focus on building culturally competent workplaces that prioritize open conversations and a zero-tolerance approach to real or perceived slights, insults, and put downs that impact employee well-being. 

Building and maintaining an inclusive workplace takes time and is a process of continual feedback and learning — so don’t panic if results don’t happen overnight. Instead, commit to making small changes and be intentional about your commitment to managing workplace microaggressions.