Microaggressions in the workplace – should you be adding this to your D&I training?

We want to look at the concept of microaggression and explore its relevance and application to your dignity at work policies and diversity and inclusion training.  

At Jaluch we deliver a lot of D&I programmes (unconscious bias training too) but recently more clients are requesting a section on microaggressions. The reality is that it’s a phrase we are hearing more and more often so, is this a good opportunity for you to learn a bit more about it too?  

What is Microaggression?  

Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist, has defined it in a few different ways, hopefully one of these will give you a good appreciation of what it is about:  

“brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”  

“brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” 

You will note that the latter definition is less wide than the first as it refers only to micro aggression in relation to colour or race, not to any of the other protected groups protected by the Equality Act 2010 (age, disability, religion or belief, marriage or civil partnership, gender, sexual orientation, transgender, pregnancy or maternity). 

Microaggression is the opposite of Macroaggression which might be defined as large-scale or overt aggression toward those of a different race, culture, gender, etc 

Micro Insults  

If you have not heard the term micro aggression, perhaps you have instead heard the term micro insult? These are subtle verbal and nonverbal communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. 

Micro invalidation   

This is defined as “A form of microaggression that excludes or negates a person’s thoughts or feelings”  

Two examples: “you’re being over sensitive, if you knew him better you would know that’s not what he meant” or “I’m a fair manager and treat everyone equally, so your interpretation of my behaviour is wrong” 

Who came up with the concept?  

The focus purely on race and skin colour in the term Microaggression originates from the early 1970’s use of the phrase which was coined by Profession Chester M Pierce when talking about the insults and slurs he regularly witnessed towards Black people (of which he was one) in the US. Pierce was a professor of education and psychiatry at Harvard.  

What examples of it do we see in the workplace? 

“Someone like you shouldn’t need training in this” – a supposedly humorous refusal of support or systems training requested by a young person on the assumption that young people should have good and all encompassing IT skills.  

“Are you sure you want to apply for a marketing grad job, not finance?” – said to an Asian student on the assumption that a lot of Asian students are good at maths and apply for finance roles or equally that not many Asian students are expected to be creative or have the softer skills required for marketing.  

“You’re being over sensitive” – said to a woman who complains of being treated like a second class citizen  

“You need to speak up more” – with an implication of criticism and said to an Asian woman whose cultural style may not encourage her to speak up in a meeting.  

“Wow, you’ve got a master’s degree” – said to a black job applicant with the implication being that you did not expect them to have attained such a high level of education.  

“I expect your priorities will change now, but I’ll support whatever you decide to do” – said to a woman at work by her manager before her wedding.  

“But where are you really from?” said to a British person of African descent who said he is British when asked his nationality.  

Can a business lose a claim for discrimination/harassment due to micro aggressive behaviours? 

In a nutshell, yes!  

If one of your members of staff makes even one comment that’s related or could be linked to a protected characteristic (age, disability, religion or belief, marriage or civil partnership, gender, sexual orientation, transgender, pregnancy or maternity), then the person may feel that they are being treated less favourably, that their dignity is being violated and that they are subjected to hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.  

If this is the case, then that individual could choose to make, and could potentially win, a claim against the organisation (and possibly the individual who made the claim), and therefore it would be risky to allow or tolerate such comments in your organisation. 

Irrespective of how the comment was intended, it is how it is perceived by the individual in question that is important, and only one comment could potentially be sufficient to allow an individual to win a claim of discrimination/harassment in a Tribunal and receive compensation. 

What relevance for D&I policies including Dignity at Work? 

So now we come to the crunch! You have learned more about it. but do you need to do anything about it?  

Whilst clearly microaggression is a term that is already in use and being applied to workplace behaviours, plus now being subject to a fair amount of academic research, each workplace still needs to decide whether talking about micro aggressions and including the concept in their D&I policies is an appropriate step forward.  


There are of course many who argue that organisations have to do everything they can to eradicate all forms of harassment. Tackling microaggression is just the next step in that process after spending decades tackling overt aggression and discrimination. There are also legal reasons why you might wish to tackle micro aggression as set out in the above section on the potential legal repercussions.  


There are though many who argue that talk of microaggression simply increases people’s sensitivity in an already over sensitive world and, as a result, increases, rather than decreases, conflict in the workplace through informal complaints, grievances and of course tribunal claims. In other words, it encourages the blame game in a way that is not helpful to a successful and respectful team working environment.  

There are also those who suggest that micro aggression encourages a belief that one group is always the aggressor and the other group, the victim, particularly as its origins stem from the treatment of African Americans by White Americans. But most of us recognise that aggression, assumptions, and slurs etc often go both ways. We might be subjected to someone else’s biases or assumptions about us, but equally, we too, have biases and make assumptions about others which are reflected in our treatment of them. In the UK the concept of inverse snobbery (you don’t want to aspire to being one of them, they don’t live in the real world) is as well known as traditional snobbery (you don’t want to mix with people who are beneath you, do you?) 

The middle ground… 

Of course the middle ground in this debate might to be include this as a topic within your D&I training in order to educate rather than legislate. If you roll out Unconscious Bias training too, then this topic fits very neatly into that, again in a way that seeks to educate and encourage discussion, rather than apportion blame and identify transgressors.  

Can Jaluch Support?  

On the legal side, Jaluch support with Tribunal Claims brought against your organisation as well as grievances raised. Our HR consultants frequently carry out disciplinary and grievance investigations for clients and also support by chairing or note taking at formal meetings 

Why appoint an unknown face or someone who lacks experience of the employee relations when you can appoint a Jaluch consultant who you know will handle things fairly, with empathy but of course, with an eye on the cost too! Our hourly rates for investigations and support are significantly less than most lawyers and we have had tribunal judges praise our work, so you need have no concerns on that front either.  

… BUT to avoid microagression or unconscious bias related grievances being raised, educate your workforce. Take a look at our microaggression eLearning or unconscious bias eLearning options, or look at our diversity training page where you’ll find full details of all our course. Of course, if you want to speak to someone straight away, contact us.

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