Diversity, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion

The impact of microaggressions in the workplace

Two men and two women of different ethnicities discussing microaggressions in the workplace

Microaggressions are anything but a micro problem. In a 2023 survey¹ of over 25,000 workers in the U.S., three out of every five respondents reported regularly experiencing race-based microaggressions, while two in five experienced microaggressions based on gender. With this prevalence of exclusionary acts in the workplace, it’s likely you’ve also been affected.

Your organization should empower you to address microaggressions at work, whether you personally experience or see someone else face them. But you might be too afraid to speak up, especially as a minority or part of a historically marginalized group. We detail a framework below that discusses how to approach these hard moments, regardless of your seniority or identity. In doing so, you support a movement toward creating a more inclusive workplace.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are subtle interactions that communicate bias against historically marginalized people. They’re not always blatantly offensive, but are behaviors tinged with discrimination. Coupled with a casual or dismissive tone, the interaction is enough for you to ask yourself, “did they just say that?” 

Microaggressions are not the same as discrimination, however. While a microaggression may or may not be intentionally exclusionary, it is always the case with discrimination. A few examples of microaggressions include: 

  • Leadership expressing displeasure for turning off cameras for virtual meetings 
  • Giving someone an Americanized nickname without their consent 
  • A man interrupting a woman, then using the woman’s ideas as his own to get praise or credit for them “Complimenting” an Asian-American on their “good English” 
  • Telling someone they’re “too sensitive” or “it’s just a joke” after they call out a racist joke

Why are microaggressions a problem?

Regularly experiencing microaggressions at work has the cumulative effect of hurting your health and professional growth. Even when microaggressions are addressed, marginalized people often have to educate others on why the experience is so damaging or demoralizing. This unsolicited responsibility adds to their mental load of thwarting, avoiding or begrudgingly accepting exclusionary behavior. 

What some see as “just a joke” can manifest into real-life health issues. The feeling of being constantly “othered” is associated with higher instances of²: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Feelings of inadequacy 
  • Burnout 
  • Depression 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Stress 
  • Insomnia 

The weight of microaggressions negatively affects an individual’s ability to perform at work, resulting in lower morale, productivity, problem-solving and job satisfaction³. Over time, unchecked microaggressions can lead to a loss of career opportunities⁴ for marginalized colleagues as well.

How to handle microaggressions in the workplace

It can feel like an impossible ask to confront people on their microaggressions in the workplace. But when you take up space for your or your colleague’s intersectional identities, it brings you a little closer to a healthier, more inclusive culture. Refer to the framework below if and when you experience or see a microaggression.

If it happens to you or you see it happen to someone else


Your initial reaction to experiencing or seeing a microaggression may be shock and anger. But before you react, pause to consider how having a difficult conversation with this person will affect the following⁵: 

  • Your mental health: Are you in the right frame of mind to have this conversation? It’s okay to walk away if you don’t feel mentally or emotionally up for it. 
  • Timing: Is now the right moment to call out the behavior? E.g. it may be counterproductive to do so in a large group meeting. 
  • Your relationship with the person: If they’re senior to you or you’re not close with this person, they may not be open to receiving your feedback. Consider consulting a trusted colleague, your manager, your HR representative or the other person’s manager. 
  • Your knowledge of the behavior: Do you have enough authority on the subject? Are you aware of the historical context and implications? Your ability to speak to the nuances and discriminatory undertones will impact your effectiveness in steering the conversation to a productive outcome. 


Seek to understand, not to attack. Remember that people can be oblivious to the microaggression’s harm (or even that what they said or did was a microaggression to begin with), so coming from a place of productive discussion gives the person an opportunity to explain themselves. Hold back any sharp reaction and replace it with curiosity. Ask, “What do you mean by that?” Or, “I think I heard you say X--is that right?” 

Make sure to only address the microaggression. This focus keeps the feedback targeted to the actions in question and prevents the conversation from derailing into character-shaming. 


Once you clarify the intent of the other person’s behavior, try these conversation tactics to build rapport and reach a resolution⁶: 

  • Address the intent and impact of their words or actions: “I know you might have intended for your comment to be X, but the way I received it was Y.” 
  • Share how it impacted you: “When I hear things like that, it makes me feel X.” 
  • Show them that you value your relationship with them (if applicable): “I know you’re someone who [positive trait/value], so it just seemed [impact contrary to their character] when you [microaggression].” 
  • Connect an experience: “I remember when I [a comparable moment of ignorance]. I felt [emotion], so I [how you changed your behavior].”

How to prevent microaggressions in the workplace

Preventing microaggressions in the workplace starts with companies developing and applying DEBI (Diversity, Equity, Belonging, and Inclusion) policies, expectations and protocols to their culture. A vital component includes educating teams on DEBI concepts, which helps people recognize (and often learn to avoid) microaggressions since they tend to be subtle yet subversive. 

But if your company doesn’t have a compelling DEBI program, that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your own training. Certificate programs like Leading Change for a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace teach you how to apply DEBI concepts in actual work settings and track your progress. It also trains you how to coach, mentor and be an ally in ways that promote inclusivity and belonging in your team--all while you earn CPE credits. 

Getting good at spotting and correcting microaggressions in the workplace will help you create psychological safety for your colleagues⁷. That trust in knowing you have their backs when ethical or discriminatory issues arise is what drives wellbeing and performance for teams.

How to create an inclusive environment

Give people microvalidations

Raising concerns to your higher-ups or the offender isn’t the only way you can counteract microaggressions in the workplace. You can also give people “microvalidations,” which are the opposing force to exclusionary acts. 

Microvalidations are subtle gestures that validate someone’s work or identity. But don’t be mistaken--their collective impact is just as powerful as its counterpart--and easy to weave into your work day. They can be as simple as: 

  • Providing thoughtful compliments on a job well done 
  • Giving someone your full attention in meetings or 1:1’s 
  • Learning how to pronounce someone’s name the way they prefer it 
  • Giving credit to someone’s ideas 

These little acts may seem insignificant. But for your historically marginalized colleagues who are used to NOT “getting their flowers,” they can boost their morale, performance and sense of belonging.

Offer remote work options

Remote work not only gives people the flexibility to harmonize their personal and work lives, but it also allows many workers a break from constantly having their guard up against in-person microaggressions. 

In a virtual setting, employees are less likely to: 

  • Be confused with someone who’s the same race or similar ethnicity as them (you can input your name on video calls). 
  • Be talked over in an in-person meeting (virtual meetings have the “raise hand” feature and are more conducive to written communication). 
  • Need to code-switch. 

Working from home releases you from needing to blend into the office culture and environment. Before return-to-office policies, marginalized remote employees actually reported feeling happier because they faced fewer microaggressions than when they were in the office⁸. When workers feel accepted and supported, they can more easily perform to their potential.

Educate to build awareness

You can’t be better without knowing better. At work, that only happens with a culture that supports learning and development in skill and conduct. That’s why DEBI initiatives are critical to combatting microaggressions. “Othering” a colleague doesn’t just harm that one person; it affects everyone’s ability to do their best work.

Becker CPE helps you create inclusive spaces

Give your teams the tools to speak up and counteract microaggressions in the workplace with CPE courses focused on diversity, equity and inclusion. By learning how to face these challenges, your team will know you have their backs, and you’ll know they have yours, too.

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