- Microaggressions are subtle, yet offensive comments or actions that express prejudice towards a person's identity, such as race, gender, or background.
- While remote work has limited them, microaggressions can still occur remotely, affecting employees' well-being and productivity.
- Here's a guide for addressing microaggressions by recognizing biases, avoiding assumptions, supporting colleagues, and more.
“You’re so articulate.”
“Is that your real hair?”
“Where are you from, really?”
For the speaker, these are likely innocuous statements — perhaps even compliments or genuine curiosity. But, for the recipient, all three are common examples of microaggressions at work.
While remote work minimizes awkward conversations between employees — and many employees prefer it that way — unwelcome comments can still pop up in Zoom calls, Slack channels, and email. The first step to learning how to deal with microaggressions in the workplace is understanding what they are.
For people who unwittingly make these comments, sensitivity training or other redirection strategies may be helpful. Those on the receiving end may want to document these statements, should they choose to ask HR or a manager to intervene. And allies can learn how to gently correct speakers who are using microaggressions. Here’s how to get started on tackling this workplace issue.
What are microaggressions at work?
A microaggression is a statement or action that is hostile or offensive to some aspect of the recipient’s identity — often an insensitive comment, question, or assumption. It subtly — and often unconsciously or unintentionally — expresses prejudice toward a member of a marginalized group. Microaggressions can be related to someone’s race, gender, sexuality, parental status, socioeconomic background, mental health, or any other aspect of identity.
As Ella Washington explains in the Harvard Business Review, “Microaggressions are based on a simple, damaging idea: ‘Because you are X, you probably are/are not or like/don’t like Y.’”
Author and former fashion editor Danielle Prescod offers numerous examples of these microaggressions in her memoir, Token Black Girl. While growing up in affluent Westchester, NY and attending a prestigious private school in Greenwich, Conn., classmates would “compliment” Prescod with statements like, “You're the whitest Black girl I know.”
“It is supposed to be a compliment because their assumption is Blackness is so negative,” said Prescod.
As an adult working in the fashion industry, Prescod received similar questions and comments from executives about driving to school from the ghetto or growing up on welfare, but not all microaggressions are as obvious. Frequent microaggressions in the workplace include statements like:
- You’re so articulate.
- You speak English so well.
- You're gay? You should meet ______.
- You’re transgender? I never would have guessed.
- Are you mixed? You don’t look like ______.
- Your name is so hard to pronounce. Do you have a nickname?
- I can’t believe you have a teenager. You look like a baby!
- Wow, you’re so OCD!
- Are those your real children/parents?
- The way you’ve overcome _________ is so inspiring.
Regardless of the speaker’s intent, microaggressions have a lingering effect on the recipient. Instead of focusing on doing their best work, the receiver of the microaggression has to stop, pause, process, and consider reacting to the injury they just received.
Microaggressions in remote work
Video conferencing gives co-workers a direct view into an employee’s private world, introducing their family, home, and, perhaps, a more relaxed appearance than they would present in an office. “In trying to connect or correct us, our bosses and coworkers make comments about it,” HR expert Sarah Morgan writes at The Buzz on HR.
Working from home has eliminated some of the traditional markers of a hostile work environment — like unwanted touching, standing inappropriately close, or uncomfortable staring — but workers who feel more relaxed in their homes are more prone to making comments that are better left unsaid. Mentally, these speakers are in their homes where they can speak freely. Practically, they’re making comments that will have a ripple effect through their teams.
How to avoid using microaggressions
It’s normal to be curious about other people’s lives and backgrounds. That doesn’t mean you need to have a conversation about it. Before asking a question or making a comment, do a gut check: Is your statement specific to that person or are you making assumptions about the person or a group that you categorize them with? Is the comment necessary?
When it comes to asking personal questions about co-workers, stay within the boundaries that the other person has set about their life. For example, if a co-worker states that they immigrated three years ago, and they feel self-conscious about their English skills, then it can be appropriate to respond, “Your English is great.” Otherwise, keep the comment to yourself.
Never force a colleague into being the spokesperson or representative of an entire marginalized group. If you want to learn more about a group’s history or struggles, there are plenty of resources available online or at your library. Asking your Black co-worker to explain the Black Lives Matter movement, however, is demanding additional work from them — on top of their actual responsibilities — and can resurface trauma. (Similarly, talking ad nauseam about racial justice only to your BIPOC colleagues — even as an ally — can also be triggering.)
Reducing microaggressions starts with recognizing your own biases and prejudices. If someone corrects you, don’t compound the microaggression with defensiveness. Instead of responding, “You know I didn’t mean it that way,” consider how the other person likely feels in raising the point. An appropriate response could be, “Thank you for letting me know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
When apologizing, be sure to take responsibility, rather than shifting responsibility. Instead of, “I’m sorry if I offended you,” say, “I’m sorry that I offended you.”
Even if no one corrects you, it’s best to apologize when you realize you said something inappropriate. Start with, “I want to apologize. I made a comment earlier, and I realize now it was inappropriate.” Most people will accept your apology and move on. If your colleague indicates that the matter is resolved or they don’t wish to continue the discussion, don’t press it further.
Responding to microaggressions at work
“Microaggressions can be really tough because of that whole ‘micro’ part of it,” said Krista White, a writer and DEI consultant. “People don't do them on purpose, but that can also make it challenging. People find it very easy to say, ‘Oh, I didn't mean that.’”
In an ideal world, White says that allies within your company who witness microaggressions would gently correct the person making the statement. That can be as simple as, “Hey, you made a comment earlier that didn’t sit right with me.”
If you don’t feel comfortable addressing the person who made the statement, consider confirming to the colleague who experienced the microaggression that the behavior you witnessed was inappropriate. While this type of allyship is private, it’s a way of supporting a marginalized colleague.
In reality, however, most people don’t understand how to navigate these complicated dynamics, which means marginalized people are left to advocate for themselves.
“The first time or two, if you need to correct someone or set a boundary, just try to have the most generous approach to it that you can, assuming good faith,” White said. But, regardless of that good-faith assumption, it’s also important to keep contemporaneous documentation of microaggressions. “One thing I would definitely recommend is just documenting things: Keeping the receipts of the emails, of the Slack messages. Write down verbal instances and email them to yourself so that you have a record if you need to take this up to HR.”
Remote offices need a plan to combat microaggressions
While some companies are requiring employees to return to the office, remote work will likely remain a significant part of the employment landscape. A poll by the World Economic Forum found that the majority of workers in 29 countries want work from home to be permanent, and 30% said they would switch jobs if forced to return to the office. In addition, Future Forum study found that BIPOC employees express a greater preference for remote work and flexible schedules.
“While there is something to be said about socializing and brainstorming with people, it’s not worth it when you’re facing workplace harassment and racism,” Boris Moyston, founder and senior managing partner of Relentless Venture Partners told Slate.
Solving communications issues, like addressing microaggressions in remote teams, takes work, but it can be done. First, take advantage of company resources such as videos, courses, and books that can make you a better communicator, or seek out your own. Second, cross-check your statements to avoid appearing overbearing, critical, or condescending. Third, take time to clarify your statements to prevent misinterpretation. Finally, admit when you’re wrong.