By: Alexis Gomez

Creating inclusive and safe working environments is important for businesses and organizations to remain successful. When employees do not feel safe or welcome at work, the consequences can be dire.

One type of hostility that can often lurk around unnoticed is microaggressions. Many people have had situations at work when someone does or says something that feels offensive to some aspect of their identity, and oftentimes, that person didn’t even realize it.

Recognizing Microaggressions

Microaggressions are subtle expressions of prejudice. They can be hard to spot since they are often masked as compliments or “prosocial” statements. According to Fast Company, microaggressions are derived from socialized beliefs, such as harmful prejudices and pathological stereotypes, passed to us by our parents, relatives, friends, and social circles. While nobody is born a sexist or a racist, these ideas perpetuate when they continue to go unchecked and unchallenged.

Microaggressions can also work as a strategy for one to protect their own ego, as bringing others down, although unintentionally, will allow one to feel better about themselves and their own identity.

Intention v. Impact

While microaggressions are not always intentional, that does not negate their impact. At their core, microaggressions stem from inequality and disrespect. What may seem like a harmless comment or observation to the sender could have negative physical and mental health consequences over time for the receiver.

According to Harvard Business Review, receiving microaggressions, especially over the course of an entire career, can lead to increased rates of depression, prolonged stress and trauma, physical concerns like headaches, high blood pressure, and difficulties with sleep. Microaggressions can negatively impact careers as they can lead to increased burnout and less job satisfaction.


Responding to microaggressions is not always easy, especially since no one likes to feel backed into a corner. If you see or hear a microaggression, consider the environment and how you can create a safe space for the behavior to be pointed out. Some situations might benefit from an immediate approach, while others might best be conducted later when authentic dialogue can take place. For example, you might later discuss the situation with a colleague by saying, “Hey, I know you didn’t mean ___ in this way, but let’s not use language like that…”

If someone tells you that you have said something offensive, take a moment to pause and consider the best way to handle the situation. Avoid being defensive and try to take a moment to reflect on where they might be coming from. Being called out can be uncomfortable, but listening, asking for clarification, and apologizing can be helpful to avoid perpetuating harmful language and ideas in the workplace and your personal life.

Importance of Leadership

While leaders should not aim to “police” people’s thoughts and beliefs, they should set the standard for other employees by providing training on topics such as microaggressions. If gone unchecked, microaggressions and other hostile behaviors can quickly become part of an organization’s culture.

According to Harvard Business Review, the reality of the Great Resignation of 2021 has employers paying closer attention to how organizational culture can influence whether employees want to leave. One study found that 7 in 10 workers said they would be upset by a microaggression; half said it would make them consider leaving their job.

Combating microaggressions means being intentional about how we frame things. It means creating an environment where people feel safe and respected and can speak up to facilitate important and productive conversations about inclusion.