Combating Microaggressions in the Workplace

Recent events have tensions running high across the U.S. and even around the globe. And with our home and work lives more blended than ever, it’s becoming more challenging to prevent passive-aggressive language and demeaning interactions from seeping into the workplace. Not addressing these microaggressions in the workplace can lead to a toxic culture that negatively affects your employees’ job satisfaction, productivity and sense of safety — and can open employers up to potential liabilities.

Guest speaker Melissa Dobbins, founder and CEO at, addressed the divisive power of microaggressions in the workplace in a recent episode of HRCI's Alchemizing HR webinar series. "Microaggressions are all those little actions and words that are hurtful and demeaning," Dobbins says. "They devalue people as professionals — as humans — and create a horrible sense of isolation."

Don’t let toxic interactions, whether intentional or accidental, disrupt your organization’s culture. Here's how to break the culture of microaggressions in the workplace.

Promote Actionable Awareness

Most microaggressions are accidental, Dobbins says. They stem from a lack of awareness of and exposure to diverse experiences. Combating these microaggressions requires increased awareness, but awareness needs to be accompanied by actions. Dobbins provides a model for raising awareness and identifying behavior modifications to adopt:

  • What: What do you find exclusionary/hurtful?
  • Why: Why is this practice exclusionary/hurtful?
  • Now what: What behavior must change, and how?

A common microaggression, for example, is using the phrase "I don't see color," to a person of color (the “what”). But saying you don’t “see color” is the same as saying "I prefer not to acknowledge a part of who you are," which is extremely hurtful (the “why”), Dobbins says. Avoid using this demeaning phrase in future conversations (the “now what”).

The "what" and "why" are personal and come from the person experiencing the aggression. The "now what" is communal: It poses a solution that can be broadly adopted across the organization to foster inclusion and belonging. Empower everyone as a group to find solutions, and give employees a voice in identifying microaggressions in the workplace so that everyone can focus on productivity.

Facilitate Respectful Dialogue

Not addressing microaggressions leads to a hostile work environment for victims of the interactions, who are usually already marginalized (women, BIPOC employees and/or employees with disabilities, for example). This can escalate to a fractured workplace culture or the loss of employees who don’t feel valued at work. 

Dobbins recommends starting small, as these are emotional conversations, and letting employees opt in rather than putting anyone on the spot. As you become better at facilitating sensitive conversations, expand your scope. Dobbins also recommends maintaining a wide focus: Don’t single out a specific demographic or background, such as Black employees. Instead, probe different demographic groups across the organization. This does two things, Dobbin says. "One, it won't isolate one group any further and make it an 'us vs. them' type of conversation," she says. Two, “it shows that this is a very inclusive conversation." This empowers everyone to have a voice.

Establish ground rules so everyone knows how to engage, and hold everyone to the same established standards. Require respectful language and attitudes from all participants, and don't let anyone start laying blame — you want to avoid any "us vs. them" type of language, especially for hot-button issues like politics or racial dynamics. Don't publicly call anyone out by name, but do make sure each employee knows how to discreetly report misbehaviors. Finally, don't put a blanket embargo on tense topics (like politics). Making a topic taboo causes people to gravitate towards their in-group, Dobbins says, which leads to wider divisions across the workplace.

Enforce Consistent Consequences

Consequences and disciplinary action are essential responses to microaggressions in the workplace. Not enforcing consequences enables bullies to continue bullying their colleagues, which creates a toxic culture and can easily lead to legal liabilities. Set standards for good behaviors, and take action against violations.

"The [disciplinary] actions must be consistent to work," Dobbins says. They must be known to everyone and visible to all. "Consistency is absolutely key here," Dobbins continues. "If there are exceptions to the rule it's going to make it worse, not better." To enforce consequences equally requires buy-in from leadership, as leaders and managers must be held to the same standards as everyone else.

Dobbins recommends following this process:

  • Identify misbehaviors
  • Execute consequences
  • Evaluate results
  • Apply lessons and repeat

For example, when a male employee calls a female leader “bossy,” he’s undermining her leadership. HR must respond immediately with an explanation of why the remark was demeaning, accompanied by a verbal warning. Observe the employee’s subsequent interactions with women in the workplace. If he repeats the behavior, take a harder stance. Tolerating microaggressions at work signals that you value some employees over others. To cultivate a healthy culture, organizations must make work safe for all employees.

View the full webinar for HRCI recertification credit.