Aug 31, 2018

Microaggressions in the Workplace

“So, where are you really from?”

“Wow, you speak English so well!”

Although seemingly harmless on the surface, these statements are indicative of an internalized racism embedded in society. Whether intentional or not, the message is clear: “You don’t really look like us, so you’re probably not from here”

The same applies to the undercurrents of sexism displayed in the office as well. Women are more likely than men to be tasked with, or reluctantly volunteer for, office “housework.” Even if you haven’t explicitly noticed these types of behaviors, you probably wouldn’t be surprised or question it if it did happen. Requests like these quietly reinforce the harmful stereotype that women are the ones who run errands or perform more menial or “administrative” tasks.


Comments, questions, or actions like those described above are microaggressions: the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership (source). They are subtle reminders that society has typecast minorities as “different”, as people who are outsiders. 

The impact of these microaggressions can feel like “a thousand papercuts,” says Emilie Hsieh, CEO of the startup Allie, a company dedicated to eliminating microaggression situations. 

“There was never any massive issue, or any explicit ‘isms’, sexism or whatever,” Hsieh said. “It was all death by a thousand paper cuts. It was, ‘Do you mind taking notes?’ or  ‘Can you grab the coffee?’, or getting called aggressive. These subtle, slight things that have no outlet, but over time they build up in terms of how much you feel you belong on a team.”

Diversity and Inclusion

In today’s society, major strides have been made to address the “big” issues of diversity and inclusion, such as improvements in reporting blatant discrimination and harassment to HR departments, blind interviewing, and even practicing in-depth bystander training.  However, what has been done to address the so-called “micro” problem of microaggressions? In contrast to explicit acts of discrimination, microaggressions are often indirect, which is why they are, contrary to their name, an even larger, more systemic problem than diversity and inclusion efforts by individual companies. These beliefs have been ingrained by society, internalized to the point of being considered “normal”. Because microaggressions have been shaped by the surrounding environment, it is critical that society as a whole unlearns them.

Even though great strides have been taken towards equality, a history of bigotry and discrimination still whispers its way into society’s listening ears. Unfortunately, much of the work that is aimed towards eliminating microaggressions lies on the shoulders of the victims.

For businesses, diversity and inclusion needs to be more than just hiring more minorities to fill quotas, it is also about putting in the effort to dispel the institutionalized discrimination that their employees face in the workplace. Institutional bias and stereotypes are difficult to eradicate completely, but all companies must start somewhere.

Breaking Down Microaggressions

Katherine Lewis of The Atlantic reports three simple steps that companies can begin with : “First, conduct internal research to identify areas of possible bias; second, identify key metrics for tracking the results of interventions; and finally, make a change that will curb the effects of these subconscious prejudices on an ongoing basis.” 

In the end, it’s essential to remember that the questions and requests we ask daily may cut deeper than intended. Those who do encounter microaggressions often feel too intimidated to report for fear of getting in trouble with management; they fear being deemed  “too sensitive” or hearing “it’s just a question.”  As for those who are in the “majority” demographic of a company, don’t be that employee. Think about what you say and think about what you’re asking someone to do. Unintentional or not, internalized bias may be rearing its ugly head into every one of your conversations.


-Courtney Yu, Lingo Live Marketing Intern

Interested in reading more? Check out Helping companies understand cultural dimensions.


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