How To Shut Down “Microaggressions” At Work

It doesn’t matter if it’s intentional or not, no one should have to deal with a daily stream of slights.

How To Shut Down “Microaggressions” At Work
Photo: Ken Hermann/Getty Images Photo: Ken Hermann/Getty Images

Can you guess what would make 6 out of 10 employees leave their jobs?


If you said a bad boss, you’d only be partially right. In a study of over 1,000 U.S. adults conducted by the Center for Generational Kinetics and Ultimate Software, respondents reported that a lack of emotional safety at work would make them quit a job immediately. Company culture often starts at the top and gets reinforced by managers, so it’s not hard to see how a toxic culture could breed an environment of harassment, intimidation, and generally offensive behavior.

One of the factors that can breed such negative working conditions is microaggressions. The term “microaggression” has been used in academic circles since the 1970s to describe small casual verbal and behavioral indignities against people of color, but has entered more popular use in the last few years to encompass intentional and unintentional slights against any socially marginalized group.

Consider what happened to Ciara Trinidad. “I am a person of color,” says Trinidad, who is currently the head of diversity and inclusion at Lever, a recruiting software company. Trinidad points out that as a “part black, queer woman” she’s been exposed to plenty of microaggressions.” Most notably, Trinidad has been asked by the men she’s worked with what she thinks of other women sexually. “They’re making me one of the guys,” she acknowledges, “But it’s a really awkward situation to be in.”

Then there’s one of Kieran Snyder’s earliest experiences at Microsoft. Snyder, the CEO of Textio, a startup that analyzes text performance using AI, recalls that coming from academia with a PhD in linguistics to a corporate setting was “culture shock.” In her second week, Snyder saw that the company was offering a math talk. “I walked over a few minutes early,” she explains, “And in the room two men were already seated.” One saw her and immediately asked if she was looking for the design talk that was being held across the hall. “I had never experienced that before,” says Snyder, asserting that she majored in math as an undergraduate. But the men had assumed she was in the wrong room.

Ximena Hartsock, founder of Phone2Action, tells Fast Company that in one of her former positions the company hired someone from El Salvador. “He was very bright,” Hartsock says, but new in the U.S. workforce. “He got the typical: ‘What are you? Mexican?’ Or ‘Why do you like country music? You are Hispanic,’” she recounts. Beyond that, Hartsock noticed that coworkers acted “bothered” by his low tone of voice and his timidness. “His respect for authority was interpreted as lack of confidence,” she says.

Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president of marketing, alliances, and programs for the Anita Borg Institute, observes that one of the most common microaggressions in the workplace against women and underrepresented minorities is just having people speak over them in conversations and meetings. “Another we hear a lot is when [they] share an idea or comment and everyone ignores it, then the male in the room says it and everyone thinks it’s the greatest thing,” she contends.


Unfortunate Consequences

As Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology at Columbia University and author of the book Microaggressions in Everyday Life, sees it, “Racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to people of color.” However, Sue points out that the perpetrators are “well-intentioned [people] who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”

“Microaggressions can play a big role in employees’ productivity,” Hartsock argues, “so companies–if they are truly interested in diversity–must invest in building environments of tolerance and respect.”

Dealing With Slights Head On

But first, companies need to actually be aware that there is a problem. That’s a challenge when microaggressions come from a place of unconscious bias. Which is why Randall Peterson, professor of organizational behavior and academic director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School, says “The most productive response in the workplace is actually to confront the microaggressor.”

Ames says there are a variety of ways to handle confrontation. “Using humor helps to diffuse the situation,” she suggests. So when people talk over you, she recommends interrupting them back. “I would say ‘I know you are super excited to get your idea out, but I wasn’t done with mine.’” If it keeps happening, she advises approaching another member of the team or a supervisor privately and explaining what’s going on as they may not have noticed. Ames recognizes it’s hard not to get defensive if it happens over and over.

In the workplace, Trinidad underscores, “It doesn’t benefit anyone to come back with rage.” She says the first step is to try to understand what happened and use empathy. “Where do you think that was coming from for them?” she suggests asking. That tends to release the tension. Then, she says, it’s important to help them understand how it made you feel. Trinidad asserts that this is not going to work every time, because the microaggressor believes they are right or they simply still can’t see why it’s a problem.

Ames says the Anita Borg Institute encourages organizations to use some type of employee sentiment survey regularly to see if there are areas where problems like this persist. “Sometimes there just bad managers,’ she says, other times it just takes some training and using data to become more aware.


Above all, says Peterson, “The key is to approach the problem with a growth mindset rather than fixed mindset.” If you are positive about the prospects for change in the person you confront, says Peterson, “research suggests more positive outcomes for both the perpetrator and the victim of microagressions.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.