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What to do About Microaggressions in the Workplace

This article was based on episode 221 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Members of the Modern Manager community get a free Motivation and Feedback document. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.

Have you ever tried to compliment someone but it landed wrong? Or maybe you were the intended recipient of a compliment that irked you instead of bolstered you? One potential explanation is microaggressions. Put simply, microaggressions are actions or words that are unintentionally offensive, stemming from biases and stereotypes of communities. These subconscious beliefs express themselves as small remarks that can inflict a lot of psychological harm.

Microaggressions are not limited to compliments. For example, asking a woman to take on administrative tasks at a meeting, even though that’s not her role, is a common microaggression. Others include complimenting a person of color for being articulate and an older employee dismissing a younger one’s ideas as naive. The stereotypes that fuel microaggressions can be both negative (young people are entitled) and positive (the British accent is associated with being smarter and more cultured).

The sad truth is that about 40% of people leave their jobs due to microaggressions. Whether from coworkers or managers, we all need to understand how to support employees harmed by microaggressions in the workplace. And to make sure we aren’t the ones doing the harming!

I’m so grateful to be joined by Martine to discuss this challenging terrain. Martine is a DEI consultant, Elevation Strategist, and author of Illegal Among Us; A Stateless Woman's Quest for Citizenship and The ABC's of Diversity: A Manager's Guide To Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion In The New Workplace. Martine’s specialty is shifting mindsets, building bridges, and delivering results.


When a teammate comes to you to share how a coworker’s words or actions harmed them, always start by acknowledging the hurt. Then thank your teammate for sharing and try to really understand the situation. This is not about whether you agree with their assessment. Instead, concentrate on creating space for them to explain their perspective.

The goal of these conversations is allyship. Engage in solution finding together. Ask how you can help and what could make the situation better.


As managers, we are not immune to making unintentionally hurtful comments. We can role model the growth journey for our team members by acknowledging our mistakes and committing to doing better going forward. To help foster your ongoing growth, Martine recommends asking for regular feedback, listening deeply, and seeking support.

Set Aside Time For Feedback

Hopefully, you’re having consistent 1-on-1 meetings with each team member. Make sure to allocate at least ten minutes during these check-ins for feedback. During this time, be explicit about seeking feedback on anything you may be doing or saying that could be harmful. While ideally people are speaking up in the moment, it can be easier for some to speak up later when you’ve specifically opened the door for the conversation to happen.

Listen First

It can be hard to be told that something we said harmed another person via a microaggression, especially if that wasn’t our intention. Our first instinct is often to react defensively, as if our character is being attacked. But jumping into explanations of where we were coming from or what we really meant only makes it harder for our employees to feel heard. Just listen to where your employee is coming from and focus on understanding their experience of that interaction.

Seek Advice

Before asking for help, it’s essential to get permission to ask follow-up questions. The last thing you want is for it to feel like an interrogation. You also want to avoid creating a sense that it’s their responsibility to teach you when they are only feeling prepared to share their experience.

If they say yes to clarifying questions, ask how you could have said it differently or any ideas they can offer for how to behave more appropriately in the future. Consider saying “Thank you for sharing. I’m on this journey. I want you to feel safe and comfortable. Do you have any suggestions for what I can do differently in the future or how can we move forward?”

If they say no, understand that it’s not the right time and make a plan to come back to the conversation in the future if the opportunity arises.


DEI is a journey we are all on. No matter your race, gender, age, country of origin, or any other background, we all commit microaggressions and we all experience them. The difference is to what degree and how frequently these harms occur.

When a manager can be honest about their mistakes and commitment to change, employees will feel more safe opening up. When a manager can be honest about the harms they’ve endured, others will become more aware of how they can grow.

Understanding the world of microaggressions means honing in on our listening skills. When an employee comes to us with a story of harm, we need to first create the space to understand. Our next step is considering how we can partner with our teammate to change the situation. What will we do differently next time? When we open ourselves to the DEI journey, we gain greater sensitivity and create an atmosphere of respect and collaboration that allows all of our team to feel seen and heard as their individual, authentic selves.


Get a free 60-minute masterclass on advancing DEI when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at

This article was based on episode 221 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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