Exploring Workplace Microaggressions and the Path to Improvement

Microaggression phrases
Quincy Louis-DeShaun

Technical Recruiter

Quincy Louis-DeShaun

As part of our ongoing Diversity & Inclusion initiatives, the DockYard team hosted a Hallway Talk on Microaggressions. It was a thoughtful discussion between all of our team members to explore what a microaggression is and the ways many of us have experienced them in our own lives.

Defining a Microaggression

First, let’s make sure we understand what this term means. A microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”

When defining the word microaggression we should consider the following:

1. Unconscious Bias: No one is immune to racial, gender, or sexual orientation bias. This is based on the life experiences we have over the course of our lifetimes.

2. Manifestation: Whether verbally, nonverbally, consciously, unconsciously, environmentally, or visually, most are unaware they are exhibiting microaggressions when they occur.

3. Oppression: Microaggression is a social injustice that symbolizes oppression or dehumanization. Philosopher Ann Cudd theorized there are four aspects of oppression to confirm its existence:

  • a harm condition linked to identifiable institutionalized practices
  • consistent and institutionally applied harm to a social group
  • a condition of privilege for a social group that benefits from the institutionalized practice
  • the use of force in order to impose the identified harm associated with the oppression

Components of Microaggressions

Microaggressions can be unpacked by their use and intent in different situations. To better understand how to avoid these phrases, words, and actions, we first need to understand their nuances.


These are defined as verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. Microinsults convey an underlying insulting message. When reflecting on your own communications with peers, consider where you may have inadvertently used language with these underlying themes.

  • Ascription of Intelligence
  • Second-class citizen
  • Negativity towards cultural values and communication styles
  • Criminality/Assumption of Criminal Status
  • Sexual Objectification
  • Assumption of Abnormality


These can be any comment or action that dismisses the experiences of historically disadvantaged group members. This is incredibly damaging to the receiver and groups them unfairly into pre-determined biases.

Research has shown that this type of microaggression can result in internalizing this behavior and one inferring that the cause of a microaggressive behavior is a result of oneself versus other people.

To avoid Microinvalidations, ensure your language and actions don’t promote any of the following:

  • Alien in One‘s Own Land
  • Color/Gender/Sexual Orientation
  • Denial of Individual Racism/Sexism/Heterosexism
  • Myth of Meritocracy: a social system in which success and status in life depend primarily on individual talents, abilities, and effort


On the opposite spectrum, we have a positive phrase or action referred to as microaffirmations. These seemingly small acts are when a person uses their position to open doors to opportunity, shows gestures of inclusion and caring and promotes graceful acts of listening to understand.

Some Tangible Acts You Can Try Today:

  • Active Listening
  • Recognizing and validating experiences
  • Affirming emotional experiences

How do Microaggressions affect the workplace?

If left unaddressed microaggressions enforce marginalization, deny equal access to opportunities, and invalidate the way oppressed groups experience their own reality. LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. recently explored the potential impact of gender-based microaggressions in a Women in the Workplace study.

The study found:

  • 64 percent of the women indicated having experienced microaggressions
  • Women are twice as likely than men to be mistaken for someone in a more junior position
  • Black women are dealing with a greater variety of microaggressions and a larger number of them indicated having their judgment questioned in their area of expertise
  • 71 percent of them indicated having been the recipient of microaggressions

As the study notes: “Women are doing their part. Now companies need to do their part, too.” To establish a truly inclusive workplace, organizations need to continue to challenge themselves to identify and rectify microagressions in the workplace.

Microaggressions’ Impact on Inclusion

When looking at your workplace and reviewing ways you can achieve a welcoming and inclusive environment, it’s important to actively find and address instances of the following:

Stereotype Threat: Whether positive or negative, stereotypes observed with microaggressions can have a negative impact on employee performance and well-being.

Uncertainty of Treatment: Why am I being treated this way? This can be distressing as the recipient is forced to use cognitive resources to find reasoning, which can lead to increased stress hormones —similar to the feeling of being bullied.

Underlying Unconscious Bias: Biases can lead to skewed performance reviews, fewer opportunities for mobility or advancement, and ultimately undermine the overall company culture.

Aligning Awareness and Understanding with Action

Awareness and understanding are often the first steps needed to end exclusionary and discriminatory behaviors. Be aware of the following potential types of prejudiced actions:

Microaggressions are a form of bias whether conscious or unconscious that emulates oppression

Microinsults are often unconsciously relayed messages insulting one’s identity or race

Microinvalidations dismiss the disadvantages of historically marginalized groups

Microaggressions in the Workplace can support the marginalization of groups and create a loss of opportunity. Ultimately, dismissing the experience of these groups.

Impact on Inclusion is a threat to an individual’s physical and mental well-being.

Microaffirmations are acts we can use to create inclusivity and caring. Listen. Learn. Validate. Affirm.

As you become more aware of the types of behaviors, try to understand the three potential positions you may encounter in real-life situations:

The Target : Consider the context, take care of yourself emotionally and mentally, do not be fooled by microaggressions parading as opportunities

The Bystander: Be an ally, speak up, do not speak for the targets of microaggressions but speak for yourself

The Microaggressor: Do not be defensive, acknowledge the hurt caused, and apologize. Opportunity to learn from your mistakes and educate yourself

Finally, align your awareness and understanding with action by substituting messages about deficit and exclusion with messages of excellence, openness, understanding, and opportunity to move forward.

This is how we all can make a difference. We all have a part to play in advancing our team, eliminating biases, confronting our prior judgments, and reflecting on where we must grow.


DockYard is a digital product consultancy specializing in user-centered web application design and development. Our collaborative team of product strategists help clients to better understand the people they serve. We use future-forward technology and design thinking to transform those insights into impactful, inclusive, and reliable web experiences. DockYard provides professional services in strategy, user experience, design, and full-stack engineering using Ember.js, React.js, Ruby, and Elixir. From ideation to delivery, we empower ambitious product teams to build for the future.


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