Microaggressions—subtle slights against historically marginalized communities—have run rampant at work in recent years.
A 2019 survey found that 26 percent of 4,274 adults said they had “definitely” experienced a microaggression at work, and another 22 percent were unsure if they had. Thirty-six percent had witnessed a microaggression in the workplace.
These behaviors can create feelings of self-doubt, erode a person’s mental health and create a continuously hostile work environment.
While some microaggressions are committed intentionally, many of these comments are unintentionally harmful, which makes them difficult for HR to identify. Workplace experts offered 10 examples of microaggressions that can erode a company’s culture.
“Where are you originally from?”
Stacey Cadigan, partner with global technology research and advisory firm ISG in Stamford, Conn., said asking someone where they’re from may incorrectly presume that the individual is not from the same country as the questioner, which may cause them to defend their identity.
She added that such comments “project the message that the person is viewed as different and can unintentionally reinforce a message of not belonging.”
A better alternative, Cadigan noted, is for the employee to instead share where they were raised first or skip the topic altogether until their colleague chooses to offer details of their personal background in a different setting.
“You speak so well. You’re so articulate.”
Jason Greer, president of Greer Consulting, Inc. in St. Louis, explained that being called “well-spoken” and “articulate” can be demeaning to people of color.
“The voiced surprise that I'm not speaking gibberish or unable to put thoughts together, is certainly a microaggression,” he said. “Why wouldn't someone believe that I—or any Black man—could articulate in an intelligent manner? This happens very often.”
“I’m color blind. I don’t see Black or white.”
Such comments are attempts to appear “fair” and “open-minded” but instead come across as naive at best and ignorant at worst, according to Malia Lazu, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and strategic management lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management.
“[Inclusion, equity and diversity] is not about making everyone the same,” she explained. “Rather, it’s [about] acknowledging differences and celebrating the value of each person’s learned and lived experiences. This is what makes the workplace truly inclusive.”
“Did you go to college on an athletic scholarship?”
Greer noted that a discussion among a room full of executives will invariably focus on where everyone went to college. For Black men, this conversation can cause feelings of nervousness.
Greer noted that many people think the only reason some Black men could go to certain colleges was due to their assumed athletic prowess or affirmative action rather than due to their academic standing.
“Black men get asked all the time [if they received] an athletic scholarship,” he explained. “What you are inferring when asking this is that an African American is more valued for his athleticism than his intelligence and it’s more likely he got into this school because of it.”
“We need younger people for … ”
DeSean Brown, co-founder and chief relationship officer at media company pocstock in Newark, N.J., explained that age shouldn’t be a determining factor for someone’s ability or fit in the workplace.
“In general, decisions should not be made on the assumption that age dictates what a team member does or does not know or can or cannot do,” he said. “Assuming someone’s limitations based on age perpetuates stereotypes and can hinder collaboration and knowledge-sharing across generations.”
Engaging all workers despite their age differences, he added, “ensures the focus is on perspective, skills and capabilities while maintaining an environment of inclusion and equity.”
“The weather is so bipolar.”
Janice Gassam Asare, an IE&D consultant and public speaker in New York City, explained that American English has many “ableist terms” embedded into the common vernacular.
“Many people often use this phrase to indicate how erratic and mutable the weather is,” she explained. “But for someone who actually experiences bipolar disorder, the statement is insensitive and perpetuates negative stereotypes about those living with bipolar disorder.”
“They didn't mean to offend.”
There are times when microaggressions are reported to a manager or HR. Lazu explained that she often hears from employees that these reports are dismissed as misunderstandings, and employers are asked to give the aggressor the benefit of the doubt.
“This makes employees feel gaslit, as if their experience is not real,” she said. “The burden is placed on the person who suffered the microaggression who must now do the additional work of ‘getting past it.’ ”
Lazu added that many workers will avoid pursuing restoration due to fear of retaliation, but accountability still needs to happen. People managers and HR should have the skills to recognize the harm caused and reaffirm the employee’s humanity, and not dismiss their experiences.
“Let’s call a spade a spade.”
There are several common phrases that people don't realize have racial undertones. “Let’s call a spade a spade” is one of them, Greer noted.
“I've been on the receiving end of this many times,” he said, “and while the person, who is typically not African American, is just trying to be direct, the term ‘spade’ is derogatory toward Black people.”
“You’re too emotional for a leader.”
Gender- and race-based stereotypes, such as accusing someone of being “too emotional for a leader,” can stunt employee growth and development. Brown said employees should be valued for their experience and skills rather than assumed capabilities based on historical opinion and traditions.
Colleagues can acknowledge how someone’s gender or background may affect their worldview without assuming it is tied to their abilities.
“Be sure to remove gender and race from conversations and topics that are focused on abilities,” Brown added.
“Can I touch your hair?”
Asking to touch a Black woman’s hair is a common microaggression at work today. Co-workers may compliment her as they would a white woman who has cut her hair, but with Black women, Greer said, it “sparks conversation over how funky it is.
“People will ask to touch her hair like it’s some sort of phenomena,” he said. “No. That is a microaggression.”