Microaggression in the workplace is discriminatory words and behaviors that target people based on their identity. While they may seem unintentional and harmless, they’re actually offensive. 

Understanding Microaggression in the Workplace and Its Impacts 

There are 3 types of microaggressions: 

  1. Microassaults are when someone directly and purposefully attacks another person based on who they are. This can include saying mean things, using offensive words, making jokes, or even threatening them. It could also be following someone around a store, which is a type of behavioral microassault.
  1. Microinsults are sneaky, mean messages about where someone comes from. They’re usually not on purpose, because of biases we don’t realize we have. For instance, if one person says, “You speak English so well,” it suggests they didn’t expect them to be good at it because it’s not their first language. Or when someone says, “You don’t really belong here, do you?” making the person feel like they don’t fit in.
  1. Microinvalidations are little words that accidentally brush off how someone feels or what they’ve been through because of who they are. It’s like not taking their experiences seriously or assuming things about them because of stereotypes. For example, when someone says, “You’re making too much fuss,” or “It’s not a big deal.”
Woman being talked at by co-workers (microaggression in the workplace blog)

How microaggression in the workplace affects mental health

Microaggressions can affect people’s mental health. They can make a person feel anxious and depressed. It could cause low self-esteem, triggering feelings of anger, frustration, and isolation. It can manifest in physical symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping. They could be less productive, less engaged, and have lower job satisfaction. 

Microaggressions in the workplace make underrepresented employees feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. They stop them from doing their best. It also makes everyone feel unhappy and makes it hard for teams to work well together because people don’t understand each other and argue more.

A SurveyMonkey research revealed that 26% of Americans have definitely experienced a microaggression at work while 36% have witnessed one. And close to a quarter of upset workers would leave their jobs due to these issues.

45% of the surveyed employees said unprofessional behavior is the most common form of microaggression they’ve seen in their workplace. 29% experienced hearing demeaning comments about peers or were called ‘well-spoken’ (the comment is disproportionately upsetting to 9% of Black workers vs 2% of White workers). 28% said having one’s idea taken by someone else/being spoken over (47% of women say it would upset them compared to 37% of men).

Additionally, 67% of respondents think that aggressors should be made to apologize, and 47% think managers should talk to their employees about potential microaggressions. 

How to Address Microaggression in the Workplace

40% of SurveyMonkey respondents think HR intervention is necessary to manage microaggressors.  

Here are ways human resources can help address microaggressions in the workplace: 

Creating a reporting and investigation system encourages affected employees to speak up about microaggressions and hold offending individuals responsible for their actions:

  • Let employees report microaggressions through online forms, confidential phone calls, or meetings with HR. Make it easy to use and available in different languages to suit everyone’s needs. 

Offer anonymous reporting options, so hesitant employees can come forward and identify themselves. 

  • Outline a well-defined investigation process. Clearly define the procedures, timelines, and potential outcomes. Your employees should be able to read and refer to your policy in your employee handbook, company intranet, and newsletter. 
  • Train your HR personnel on how to conduct a fair and impartial investigation. For complex cases, you can opt to work with external investigators.
  • Perform a thorough investigation. Gather evidence from the reporting employee through interviews, witness statements, and documentation. Be fair by encouraging the accused to provide their side of the story. 
  • Make sure employees know the consequences of microaggression. This helps them understand how their actions affect others and what they need to do. The goal is to change their behavior, not just punish them. 
  • During the investigation, keep both parties updated on the progress and outcomes. 

Conduct training on microaggression in the workplace 

HR should offer a microaggression training program so they learn how to identify microaggressions and how to address them when they take place: 

Survey your employees and look at incident reports to see what your organization needs. Then, make training that focuses on the microaggressions that are happening in your organization. 

Consult diversity specialists and DEI training providers to develop comprehensive training relevant to your organization. 

Decide what you want the training to do: raise awareness about microaggressions, show how they affect people, find ways to stop them, or learn how to deal with them better.

When designing the content of your training, here are some essential content you must cover: 

  • Explanation and examples of different types of microaggression (verbal, non-verbal)
  • Understanding the harmful effects of microaggressions on individuals, teams, and overall work environment
  • How to recognize microaggressions as they happen in the workplace, including everyday interactions and subtle behaviors
  • How to safely and effectively intervene when witnessing microaggressions so everyone shares responsibility

Strategies for targets and bystanders to address microaggression directly, responsibly, and respectfully 

  • Pick a training style that works with your budget and how your employees like to learn. You can do workshops in person, online lessons, or a mix of both. You can also do things like acting out scenarios, studying cases, and talking in groups to get everyone involved and using what they’ve learned.
  • Invite guest speakers and external consultants to provide diverse perspectives and make your training more credible.
  • Reinforce learning by sharing internal and external resources for support, education, and reporting incidents.

Monitor and evaluate your policies 

Implementation should be followed by monitoring and evaluation to ensure that policies remain relevant and practical:

  • Organize employee surveys and focus groups for their insights and experiences with the company’s microaggression policies.  
  • During exit interviews, ask resigned employees for feedback on how the company handles microaggressions. 
  • Review microaggression reports to identify trends, patterns, and areas where the policies can be adjusted. Analyze investigations to evaluate if they were conducted fairly, effectively, and promptly. 
  • Track how microaggression policy is being implemented across the organization to identify if something is amiss or if there are inconsistencies.
  • Measure the impact of microaggression training on employee’s knowledge and attitudes. Was there less incidence of microaggressions as a result of the training?
  • Use the information you get from interviews, surveys, reports, and training to change your policies. Make them clearer, cover more things, and work better. Make your training better to fill in any gaps or things that need fixing. 
  • Regularly communicate updates and improvements on your microaggression policies to keep employees informed and engaged. 
  • Think about hiring outside experts to check your microaggression rules. They can compare what you’re doing to what other companies do to make sure you’re doing things right and fix any problems you have. 

Infinite Blue’s HR Director, Keca Ward, shares how her company integrated digital reporting and support systems in their DEI initiatives: 

We launched an anonymous reporting app alongside an AI-driven chatbot designed to provide immediate support to our team members. We worked closely with our IT and DEI departments to ensure the platforms were intuitive, secure, and respectful of our employees’ privacy. 

The outcomes have been genuinely transformative. Not only did we see a significant increase in reported incidents, reflecting a newfound trust in our processes, but the data collected also provided us with invaluable insights into patterns of behavior that we were previously unaware of. This enabled us to tailor our training programs more effectively and address specific issues directly.

The AI chatbot became an unexpected source of comfort and guidance for many employees, offering them immediate advice and support, which, in many cases, helped de-escalate situations before they intensified. Overall, this strategic move has not only enhanced our ability to respond to microaggressions but also deepened our understanding of the dynamics within our team, leading to a more aware and empathetic workplace culture.

Build an inclusive culture 

Senior leaders should lead by example to have a thriving, inclusive culture by modeling inclusive behavior, speaking up against microaggressions, and holding themselves accountable. 

Supplement your microaggression training with another type of training, such as: 

  • Active listening – train employees to have active listening skills so they learn to empathize, understand, and respect differences 
  • Bystander intervention – teach employees how to safely and effectively intervene when witnessing microaggressions
  • Inclusive language – educate employees on using inclusive language and communication practices to create a more respectful and welcoming environment
  • Unconscious bias – microaggressions are influenced by unconscious biases. So, it makes sense to offer this training that tackles different types of biases, prejudices, and stereotypes. In a way, employees discover their biases and find ways to change them. 

Additionally, promote open and respectful conversations about microaggressions through facilitated dialogues, workshops, and focus groups. 

  • Create employee resource groups (ERGs) that provide a safe space for employees to connect, share experiences, and advocate for their communities.

Checkr’s Chief People Officer Robert Kaskel said: 

HR needs to support their teams and address microaggressive behavior quickly. Still, we should always be setting up systems of support that make it easier for marginalized people to call it out and lean on their allies safely. 

That’s where employee resource groups (ERGs) become a powerful tool to create safer spaces for people. We must support our people through our direct actions but also create safe spaces for them to thrive and advocate for themselves. Employees can connect with people over shared experiences, talk about microaggressions, become more aware of them, and gain more confidence to come forward with the support of those allies. These ERGs can also advocate for the moves they think should happen next, like educational workshops. When HR partners with ERGs, they gain keen insights into these employees’ experiences and collaborate to build a better workplace.

  • Make sure your hiring and promoting practices are inclusive. This means making sure the people you hire and promote represent the different groups in your community.
  • Organize events and activities celebrating diversity and promoting appreciation of different beliefs and cultures.
  • Give recognition and rewards to employees who act inclusively. This shows what behaviors are good and encourages everyone else to do the same.
  • Offer diversity and inclusion resources like articles, books, and websites 

Why I wrote this :

Addressing microaggression in the workplace is crucial to having a genuinely inclusive space where all employees feel safe and respected in their perspectives. At Ongig, we promote diversity by helping recruiters write bias-free job descriptions. Contact us to schedule a demo


  1. Study: microaggressions in the workplace – SurveyMonkey
  2. Checkr’s Chief People Officer Robert Kaskel
  3. Infinite Blue’s HR Director, Keca Ward

by in Diversity and Inclusion