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How to Address Microaggressions at the Workplace

By Jasmine Pathak - WIL Team

Even if you are not familiar with the term “microaggressions”, you have likely experienced or witnessed them. 

Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as  “the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that minorities experience in their day to day interactions with well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in an offensive act or made an offensive statement.”

These acts are normally related to a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or disability status. And while these incidents are often subtle, their impact can have a huge affect on your performance and your confidence.

It is likely you have been at the receiving end of a microaggression before. If so, you’ll know it is not the greatest of feelings. Here are some ways to address this pesky conflict at the workplace:

  • Dealing with receiving microaggressions at work

If you find yourself the recipient of a microaggression, taking a breath is the first step in figuring out your response. It is so easy to get angry and lash out, especially if this has happened to you before. While momentarily satisfying, and understandable, this kind of response will only hinder your relationships in the long-term.

Then, decide if you want to talk with the person about what happened. It may be appropriate to do it in the moment, but it may not be. It’s important to recognize that power dynamics can be at play here, so if you do decide to confront someone, you want to be sure you feel safe enough to do so.

  • If you decide to talk with the person

Be clear that addressing a microaggression is not to solely label someone as sexist or racist (even if they are acting in such a way), but rather, it is to address actions and words. Often, once you label someone, the conversation is over. It is instead better to educate, learn and unlearn, in pursuit of reaching an understanding. 

Finally, wait and listen. Understand that you might not get the reaction you want. If the person is defensive, and wants to make it about ‘having fun’, then it may be best to revisit the situation at a later opportunity.

  • If you’re a witness to a microaggression in the workplace, what do you do?

Much like the recipient of a microaggression, take a breath and decide if you want to talk with the person about what happened. If you do talk to them, acknowledge that you’re sharing your feelings, as the person who you think was offended may not have been offended at all.

Then, you’ll want to follow the same steps as the above, but again, it’s really important to note that this is your experience, and it isn’t about fixing anyone.

Unfortunately, microaggressions at work happen all the time, so it’s important to know how to address them. There are ways to de-escalate them in positive and productive ways through healthy dialogue, humility, and empathy. We spend a lot of time at work, and how we treat one another in an office environment (or virtually!) is important to how we feel both at work, and when we’re off the clock.



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