- IMD Business School

Combating Microaggressions: Building Inclusive Workplaces

A microaggression refers to a thinly veiled instance of bias – due to someone’s race, gender, sexual preference, or other trait – that occurs in everyday life. Microaggressions may seem like a little more than stray comments or small physical slights, but they have a big impact. These instances speak to racism, sexism, homophobia, and other types of bias that make human beings feel like second-class citizens.

The detrimental effects of microaggressions became all too clear in the wake of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. According to one survey, 21% of White professionals reported feeling prepared to return to in-office work, compared to only 3% of Black professionals. One reason? Remote work gave Black professionals a welcome buffer against microaggressions.

In short: Microaggressions are so damaging, they make people want to stay home from work. That’s a major red flag. In the workplace, microaggressions can create divides and friction, leaving people feeling unwelcome or unsafe. Discover more about what microaggressions are and how to counter them below.

  1. Understanding microaggressions
  2. Recognizing microaggressions in everyday life
  3. Effects of microaggressions on well-being
  4. Creating inclusive workplaces
  5. Strategies for combating microaggressions
  6. Promoting cultural sensitivity and respect
  7. The path forward: A more inclusive society

Understanding microaggressions

The term microaggression was developed in the 1970s by American psychologist Chester M. Pierce of Harvard University. Pierce coined the term after witnessing the ways in which non-black Americans dismissed and insulted African Americans. 

A microaggression is an everyday, subtle action that communicates bias – usually bias toward a person from a historically marginalized group, like a minority group. In addition to microaggressions, there are also macroaggressions, which are overt forms of discrimination. Microaggressions are more subtle and, thus, more common.

Microaggressions can be conscious or unconscious. An unconscious microaggression may speak to an implicit bias, a bias a person has in their subconscious that even they themselves are not consciously aware of. Learn more about unconscious bias.

Microaggressions can also take different forms, as they may be verbal, nonverbal, or environmental. Learn about the differences and get some examples of each type in the next section.

Recognizing microaggressions in everyday life

Forms of microaggressions vary. Understanding the basic types is the first step in recognizing them – and taking action against them. Here are three types of microaggressions, along with examples relevant to the workplace: 

  • Verbal. A verbal microaggression is one that is spoken out loud, often directly to the person (although it could also mean saying something out loud about them in their vicinity). An example of a verbal microaggression could be telling an Asian-American coworker, “Your English is so good.” It may sound like a compliment, but it’s a thinly veiled dig, questioning that person’s identity.
  • Nonverbal. Nonverbal microaggressions are communicated not through spoken language but through body language. An example of a nonverbal microaggression could be knowingly scheduling work meetings at a time when colleagues have religious observances.
  • Environmental. Environmental microaggressions tend to be more systemic, as they’re instituted in the environment at large. An example could be a human resources training video that only represents white people and no people of color.

According to Professor Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University, microaggressions can further be classified as microassaults, microinsults, or microinvalidations

Microassaults are consciously discriminatory, while microinsults tend to be unconscious messages. Microinvalidations are words or behaviors that somehow dismiss or invalidate another person – such as rolling eyes dismissively after they speak.

These microaggressions all communicate similar messages of being “less than,” “other,” or “not belonging.” 

In some cases, microaggressions communicate an image of deviance. For example, suppose a shop owner follows a customer around their store as if suspecting that they will steal something. In that case, the message is that the customer is untrustworthy, deviant, or even criminal.

Such microaggressions are not exclusive to the workplace, of course. They can be found in other settings, from education to health care. An example of a microinsult in a health care setting could be assuming women are nurses instead of doctors (gender-based) – or assuming black people or Latinos are nurses, not doctors (racial bias).

Effects of microaggressions on well-being

Microaggressions can have an extremely negative impact on the people they are aimed at. The continual indignities that come with repeated microaggressions can harm not only an individual’s mental health but also their physical well-being. Experts suggest that this can lead to health problems, like high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, and depression.

Some researchers even suggest that exposure to continual microaggressions can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Kevin L. Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has published research with the American Psychological Association speaking to the traumatic stress microaggressions cause.

Dismissing microaggressions as “rudeness” is itself a form of aggression and undermines the impact these actions have on those they target. It’s also important to recognize that microaggressions – whether based on sexual orientation, ethnicity, racial minority, or anything else – uphold inequities in the system, further harming those they target.

Creating inclusive workplaces

Conscious awareness is needed to nurture cultural sensitivity and combat microaggressions in the workplace. It’s up to organizations to foster inclusivity and dismantle systemic biases. This requires putting in place policies, plus a system of checks and balances to enforce them.
Something as simple as renaming the office “Christmas party” a “holiday party” can help make all – including those who don’t celebrate Christmas – feel welcome. The next section provides more detailed strategies for combating microaggressions of all kinds, from gender to racial microaggressions.

Strategies for combating microaggressions

Combating microaggressions requires education. People need to recognize microaggression behavior and then learn how to reframe it. The below tips and tools can be used by organizations looking to create more inclusive workplaces.

Promote cultural awareness and training

Educating employees about different cultures and identities can be a first step in unveiling potential biases. Diversity and inclusion training should not be a “nice to have” but a “must have,” something that’s incorporated as part of the onboarding process – and reiterated for existing employees on a continual basis. Providing educational resources about inclusive, diverse workplaces can also help.

Ernst & Young is an example of the value of diversity training. They launched inclusive leadership training in 2021, part of their mission to improve diversity, especially at the partner level. They also publicly released a DEI transparency report to hold themselves accountable.

Establish clear reporting and support systems

If microaggressions are not flagged, there’s no way to fix them. It’s important to have a confidential reporting system for employees to report issues. Articulate a non-retaliation policy to make it clear that reporting won’t be penalized, and decide what resources – like counseling – to offer those impacted. Large-scale reporting and accountability systems can also help keep the organization as a whole on track.

Take Sodexo as an example. The company has a clearly articulated Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) statement, complemented by a corporate roadmap that explains how it’ll live up to those words. They have an agenda, “Better Tomorrow 2025” that outlines their key objectives, with measurable goals – effectively holding themselves accountable.

Promote inclusive leadership and role modeling

Inclusivity starts at the top. Management must lead by example, demonstrating respectful behavior and using inclusive language. Leaders should also be ready to act as allies, addressing microaggressions as they appear. Finally, it’s essential to showcase diversity in leadership. 

Johnson & Johnson shows how inclusive leadership can be accomplished. The company has many initiatives championing women and proactively elevates women to management positions. Today, 43% of management positions in the United States are women-held.

Implement regular check-ins and feedback

Regular performance evaluations can include cultural sensitivity to help all individuals improve. One-on-one conversations with managers can also help address concerns that might otherwise go unvoiced. Feedback is an opportunity for growth, so it’s best to provide multiple outlets for feedback.

Novartis shows how regular check-ins can make a difference. The pharmaceutical giant has implemented a Chief Diversity & Culture Officer to generally oversee DEI initiatives and maintain accountability. At the same time, they’ve established 19 LGBTQ Employee Resource Groups, providing a safe space for feedback.

Cultivate an inclusive organizational culture

Diversity and inclusion should be core values of the organization if microaggressions are going to be called out. Employee resource groups are one way to promote belonging. However, there are plenty of other policies that organizations can implement to exemplify equitable practices.

An inclusive organizational culture can be reflected in many ways. Mastercard is a great example of how varied inclusivity can be. The company has tackled pay parity, ensuring that women, men, and people of color earn equal pay. They also have Business Resource Groups to represent their diverse workers. Finally, they offer inclusive employee benefits, like assistance with surrogacy or sex reassignment.

Promoting cultural sensitivity and respect

The above tips and tools can help pull back the veil on the unconscious bias that often informs microaggressions. Another must if microaggressions are to be successfully combated: open dialogue. Through honest, judgment-free conversation, it’s possible to better understand diverse backgrounds and experiences and address unintentional microaggressions.

A look at companies that have successfully taken action against microaggressions may serve as inspiration. For instance, Ralph Lauren, a certified Great Place to Work, created a formal training program to address unconscious bias and microaggressions in 2018. This was solidified in the company’s DEI efforts and made mandatory for all managers and, later, the entire employee population.

The path forward: A more inclusive society

Eliminating microaggressions in the workplace is a first step toward eradicating microaggressions in society as a whole, creating a more respectful world. Education is a critical step: Sharing examples of microaggressions can help people realize their impact. The above guide covers examples, including verbal, nonverbal, and environmental microaggressions.

Organizations can further combat microaggressions by promoting cultural awareness, establishing clear reporting systems, promoting inclusive leadership, and implementing a strong feedback culture. Case studies from companies like Novartis and Mastercard, detailed above, show how such measures make a difference.

The first step? Making a plan. Organizations that want to do their part can use the resources and information in this article to draft an inclusivity plan, covering concrete steps like how issues will be reported and where feedback can be provided. A set plan will also hold all involved accountable, which is a must if real change is to occur.