Microaggressions In The Workplace: Definitions, Examples, And How To Start The Conversation

Woman about to talk to her colleagues about microaggressions at work

On a recent episode of JT Talks Jobs, we invited Stacey Lewis, founder of HR Interrupted, back to continue our conversation on race and the workplace. The topic? Microaggressions.

"Racism has been able to fly under the radar in the workplace," says Lewis. "These microaggressions, this is kind of the foundation of it."

In order for us to make our workplaces safer and more equal for all of our colleagues, we need to learn what microaggressions are and do some self-reflection—and then apply what we learn to the workplace. Here's what J.T. and Stacey covered in their latest conversation.

What Is A Microaggression?

Microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations all fall under the umbrella of microaggressions. The common definition of a microaggression is as follows: a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.

Lewis prefers a shorter, more concise definition, which she shared during the livestream. Microaggressions, in her experience, can best be summed up as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to a certain individual because of who they are."

Microaggressions are like little jabs or cuts. They pick away at a person. They may seem harmless or insignificant in the moment (and to those of us who have white privilege), but they add up when they happen every day.

Both of these definitions are easy to understand. But when it comes to real life, are we aware of the microaggressions that occur in the workplace on a daily basis?

Examples Of Microaggressions

Two co-workers have a conversation about microaggressions


"You don't know what you don't know," Lewis says. "When you know, you do better."

It's important to learn how our words and actions can affect our colleagues at work, and what words and actions are hurtful and harmful. If you realize you've said some of the following at work, don't be defensive and don't beat yourself up. Education is power.

So, think about your conduct in the workplace. Have you said any of these things at work?

  • "No, where are you REALLY from?"
  • "What are you?"
  • "You don't act like a normal black person."
  • "I don't see you as black."
  • "No, you're white."
  • "I don't see color when I see you."
  • "I am not racist. I have a lot of black friends."
The following examples of microaggressions at work are a little more subtle:
  • "You are so smart and articulate."
  • "So, you don't speak Spanish?"
  • "You're really pretty for a dark skin person."
  • "Why do you sound white?"

A common microaggression scenario we see in the workplace is when a person of color presents something to a few colleagues and somebody asks, "Was this information vetted?" It is okay to ask this question if everyone is asked it. Don't single a person out.

Note: It is always okay to compliment someone. Just don't add "for a ____ person" to the end of the compliment. If there is something you admire about a person, tell them. Don't take the humanity out of the workplace...which brings us to our next point.

How To Have A Conversation About Microaggressions In The Workplace

Two women smile after a conversation about microaggressions in the workplace


For those of you not knowing how to approach someone at work about microaggressions, there are a few things you can do to start a conversation on the topic.

When you are a victim of a microaggression, don't be afraid to stand up for yourself. You can control how you react, but you can't control their behavior.

Lewis encourages you to respond to the microaggression with something like this: "When you said that, it hurt my feelings. Let me help you with that. Let me tell you why that's a problem for me, why that frustrated me and made me mad. Let me tell you why that's a problem statement."

You can also use intellectual curiosity to your advantage. Ask the person, "What's the foundation of your statement?"

Both of these options allow a conversation to occur. It helps the victim of the microaggression share their experience with the colleague. Let's remember that this education process goes both ways, though.

If you've realized you've committed a microaggression at work, seek to understand. Give your colleague an opportunity to explain why what you said hurt them. Pay attention. Ask, "Why is that important to you?" But consider your relationship with the person before you have this conversation. If you've never talked to them before, don't make this the icebreaker.

Humanity is at the heart of these conversations. When we look at race in the workplace, we have a tendency to overthink and take the human component out of it. "Sometimes we want to make this so hard because we really don't want to change," Lewis says.

If you want to change, start having these uncomfortable conversations at work. The result? Trust, respect, and a deeper connection with your colleagues.

Resources & Additional Info

All of us at Work It Daily want to be more informed about the struggles Black Americans and other minorities face on a daily basis, so we can better help those communities with their careers. We realize that what we do best as a company is educating and providing useful resources to those who need them, hence this article and the livestream that inspired it.

Some additional FREE resources include:

Many thanks to Stacey Lewis, whose passion for re-engineering the HR agenda led her to create HR Interrupted, a community organization for HR Influencers with grit who unapologetically interrupt historical workplace ideologies and practices through inspiration and insight.

Learn more at or follow her on Instagram @hrinterrupted.

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