Microaggressions in the Workplace

Common Examples of Microaggressions

Microaggressions are often disguised as jokes, queries, or even compliments, but are in bad taste, ill-informed and harmful. To illustrate how microaggressions might be communicated through words or gestures, consider these following examples.

Please note these examples have been provided for the purpose of learning about microaggressions. They are not intended to reflect any actual persons, living or dead, and any resemblance to any actual persons or situations is purely coincidental. This is also a small selection of examples only; in reality there are a multitude of statements, questions, jokes and gestures that can be classified as microaggressions.

  • When inviting colleagues out to an after-work social gathering, the organiser does not look at or speak to one particular individual who is in a wheelchair in a shared office when the idea is put forward.
    (By ignoring, or refusing to acknowledge or invite a particular person, that person may feel excluded by both the lack of eye contact and/or verbal invitation. This form of exclusions is an example of a microaggression.)

  • When providing praise for a female employee’s work, a male manager says, “Great work! Clearly you’re not just a pretty face! Fantastic work, for a female engineer.”
    (Expressing surprise at someone’s work output because of their gender, or generalising based on someone’s gender, is a microaggression because it suggests that gender has limited abilities or capacity.)

  • A new staff member, Muhammad, (who happens to be a person of colour) joins your team. One of your colleagues starts a conversation with them by asking “So where are you from, Muhammad?” Muhammad responds, “Oh I’m from Sydney.” Your colleague then questions them further by asking “Oh I mean what’s your background, where are you really from?”
    (Asking a person where they are from/where they are really from is a form of microaggression because it assumes that person is an outsider, usually due to the way they look, speak, sound, or what their name might be (particularly with non-western or unfamiliar names). Even if the question is asked with good intentions, such as wanting to get to know the person and showing an interest, it is best to allow people to volunteer personal information themselves if and when they feel comfortable. Find other topics of conversation and seek common ground first. You might like to consider sharing some information about yourself first.)

  • You overhear a racist joke about a negative cultural stereotype in the lunch room at work. A colleague from a cultural minority also overhears the racist joke and says, “That’s really racist, I don’t think it’s appropriate to say that kind of thing.” The person who made the joke then responds with “Oh look it was just a joke, I didn’t know you were listening.”
    (Making light of racial, cultural or other stereotypes is harmful. Attempting to pass off such remarks as “just a joke” seeks to invalidate someone’s negative experience of this, and therefore serves as a microaggression by suggesting that person is overly sensitive.)

  • A new staff member, Yuxi, joins your team and introduces themselves to the group. One of your colleagues says, “Oh sorry I think I’m going to struggle to pronounce your name- do you have an easier nickname?”
    (Refusing to learn how to pronounce someone’s name is a microaggression because it shows that you don’t really value the person. It is best to make a conscious effort to learn, practice and remember people’s names. Apologise if you make a mistake but keep practicing and be sincere.)

  • You and your colleagues go to the lunch room on your break- the room is quite busy and most people sit down to eat at the table. You notice one seat has been left unoccupied next to your colleague, John, who has recently disclosed that he has been seeking help for depression. Meanwhile, another colleague, Sally, remains standing in the corner of the room while she eats her burrito even though a seat is available next to John.
    (Refusing to sit next to a person even though a seat is available can be considered a microaggression. Even though no words may have been exchanged about the situation, this behaviour can suggest that Sally does not want to be near or speak to John. John may feel isolated and excluded in this situation.)