Microaggressions in everyday life: make work a safe space

21 Mar 21 | Blog

The world is full of big problems. Those are the ones it’s easier to focus on – because they’re black and white, in a world of grey areas.  When it comes to topics like diversity, equality, and inclusion, our attention is drawn to the most serious issues, because their impact can be devastating. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the smaller problems – like microaggressions. Because they build up.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions describe things that people say or do, that are either accidentally or purposefully offensive – often related to some negative stereotype about a certain identity group. Sexist and racial microaggressions are particularly common. Microaggressions are, quite literally, one of the smaller problems that marginalized groups face. But, unlike the headline-making discrimination that happens less frequently, the thing about microaggressions is that they come thick and fast. And however mild, being faced with hostile, derogatory, or negative comments about anything from your sexual orientation to your ethnicity is never pleasant.

Microaggressions: list of types

  • Microassaults: this involves remarks designed to belittle a disadvantaged group, from using discriminatory language, mocking people for their characteristics or behaviours, or anything that implies they are inferior
  • Microinsults: this involves remarks that imply the individual in question is ‘the exception to the rule’, in comparison to their identity group or demographic – sometimes misguidedly intended as a compliment 
  • Microinvalidations: this involves remarks that diminish the experiences of disadvantaged groups, by downplaying or completely ignoring the impact that discrimination has had on their life

Microaggression examples:

Examples of microassaults:

“You’re such a boomer” – microassaults are the most obvious form of microaggression. This comment draws on negative insinuations about age, without having to be explicit, particularly in regards to the older generation.

Examples of microinsults:

“You’re not like other girls!” – although complimentary in intent, this comment implies that there’s something wrong with being like ‘other’ girls. If you insult a whole group of people in your compliment, try a little more tact. 

Examples of microinvalidations:

“I don’t see colour” – this is such a common one, we wrote a blog about it. Although well-meaning, this comment ignores the fact that the majority of the world does see colour and discriminates people for it. 

Why are ageist, sexist, and racist microaggressions so bad? 

Microaggressions can be directed at any identity group, of course, but age, sex, and race are often the key targets. But what’s the problem here? Isn’t this often just banter? To draw on the cliche, think ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. Nasty or unnecessary comments, said to you several times a week, for months at a time – it all builds up. And that has a damaging effect on wellbeing – studies suggest the impact is equal to obvious forms of discrimination.   

Microaggression examples at work: why they can be hard to spot

You might feel pretty confident that your work environment is a positive one. There’s no Mad Men-Esque remarks about the tightness of women’s skirts, or openly racist comments towards black colleagues – all good, right? Well not necessarily. First, it’s easy to forget that you’re not privy to all the interactions people have daily. There could be a lot going on in one-to-one conversations, or within teams, that falls into the realm of microaggressions. But secondly, you might not recognise off-hand comments to be as negative as they are – especially if they’re framed as ‘compliments’. To really prioritise diversity and inclusion, you can’t assume the ‘all is well’. It’s the responsibility of leaders, managers, and HR professionals to dig deeper.

Microaggressions at work: how to tell if it’s a problem

In 2021, Salesforce made the headlines for two resignations prompted by a culture of racist microaggressions. That’s definitely not how you want to find out there’s a problem. But how can you spot the signs, especially when they can be so subtle? Microaggressions can take the form of actions but, more often than note, this is about how we speak to each other. As linguist Robin Lakoff notes, the fact that microaggressions can be framed as ‘positive statements’ makes it hard for people to speak out against them – making it even less likely to come to your attention.  What’s crucial is finding ways to bring these negative experiences to the surface. And that means listening to your employees, in a format where they feel safe to be honest. We think we have the answer.

Send an Inclusion survey to understand if microaggressions are a problem

Because of the subtlety, ambiguous intent, and sheer quantity of microaggressions people face, it can be hard to call them out. Your employees need a safe, anonymous way of communicating that this is a problem in your organisation. Our Inclusion survey is designed to capture feelings – about lived experiences, how inclusive your organisation is, and any difficulties faced. It uses advanced language analysis tech to help you pick out pain points, so you can understand your challenges clearly. It’s also free to use  – along with the rest of our Employee Feedback Platform. Why not sign up (no payment details required) and see for yourself?
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