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Workplace Bullying: Types of Microaggressions

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We’ve been talking about how unconscious bias influences the way that we perceive others during the recruitment process. Now I want to shift gears a little bit and focus on how unconscious biases can influence the way that we behave towards others during our everyday life at the office. Perhaps some of you have heard this term called microaggressions. Let’s go over the nuances of it.

What’s the problem?

To put it simply, Christina Friedlaender articulated it succinctly in her paper, “On Microaggressions: Cumulative Harm and Individual Responsibility” in January 2018 as “the subtle yet harmful forms of discriminatory behavior experienced by members of oppressed groups.” These kinds of actions don’t always come backed up with harmful intentions, but they should not go by lightly.

Six microaggressions were listed as the most pervasive. 36% of all women claimed to have had their judgment questioned in their area of expertise, as opposed to 27% of men. This figure rose to 40% of black women and 37% of lesbian women. The starkest example by far, though, was that of having to provide more evidence of competency than others. Only 16% of all men surveyed believed they had experienced this, which, when compared to the 31% of all women and more specifically the 42% of black women who had, exemplifies the discrimination that oppressed and minority groups are subject to.

Developing People Globally (DPG) – a leading professional development platform for Human Resources – did some digging on the kind of discriminatory comments oppressed and minority groups are subject to in the workforce in the UK. A common thread that seemed to run through them all was that of stereotypical or derogatory views – women, in general, being hormonal, is one example. Women of an ethnic minority being poster people for an entire race is another.

So what does a microaggression look like in action in other situations? After doing some research, it appears that it often falls into either one of two camps: biased actions that feel discriminatory and comments that signal, at best, insensitivity and, at worst, derogatory views.

So there are three key types of microaggressions that you should watch out for because eventually, they could turn into more aggressive bullying.

1. Inferiority

Women and members of other minority groups are more likely to be interrupted while they’re talking or even talked over. I’m gonna call this case, the helpful bullies. These people actually believe they’re giving sage advice, but all they end up doing is weird, uncomfortable comments that nobody really asked for. 

Another way we see can see it quite a bit is focused on language “barriers” or differences.  As a Puerto Rican that lives in another continent, this is a type of microaggression that is mainly present in my spoken Spanish counterpart. A lot of times, even if I use a word that is clearly in the dictionary and everyone knows what it means, I could easily hear someone go “what are you saying? oh, you mean (this other word that is obviously a synonym)”. Most times it’s not perversive, but it’s important to be aware and recognize the lines and when to not let people cross them.

2. Invisibility

Women and other minority groups are less likely to get credit for their ideasAnd the other people are less likely to kind of pick up on their suggestions and then give them credit for it. It’s important to be aware and think about the implications of this because it can easily be a silencing method. You may see it a lot during meetings when someone could drop an idea and then 10 minutes later another will repeat it (probably louder) and take the credit. 

3. Disrespect

This type of offender often blames the fact that they’re joking.  They’ll make excuses and rarely take responsibility for hurting someone because, after all, there were “just joking”. A clearly passive-aggressive form of verbally hurting people, this bully might even turn the blame onto to victim, whose pain tends to build as they fall prey to self-doubt.

Research shows these are just little ways people assert dominance or power over you. Instead of praising what you can do right, they focus on making you feel inferior about other things, conscious or unconsciously. So pay attention to those little moments because it may show a bigger pattern coming into play. Prevention, education, and awareness is one way to start.

What can you do about bullying?

If your company has at least one of these symptoms, don’t stress out too much because, like a bunch of other sicknesses, there are cures. Let’s go over three possible ways to attack it:

Sensitivity programs

This is the simplest and oldest one, but it’s important to not let it go by since it’s one of the most important.  Are you allowing inappropriate conduct to occur, such as not stopping a bully from demeaning a colleague? Do you facilitate splits in your department rather than making it clear that people need to work together? Do you see evidence of bullying or harassment and do nothing to counter it?

  • Identify and control potential risks
  • Implement reporting and response procedures
  • Act promptly when reports surface or if aggression is identified
  • Treat all matters seriously. Because it may not be important to you, but you for sure don’t know how they feel.

Which leads me to my second option…

VR Sensitivity Training

Yes, it’s exactly how it sounds. There’s a saying “before you judge, walk a mile in their shoes” and that’s exactly what this is. A bunch of places are now offering training in different levels of aggression with the sole purpose of giving employees the opportunity to live in someone else’s shoes and really discover how it feels like to be discriminated against. For example, Vantage Point is the leading sexual harassment training solution for corporations. This way you don’t have to explain what it feels like to feel the elephant in the room – feel the elephant in the room, and tie that to an action your employees can take at that moment.

And if you feel the microaggressions are coming from above…


I wish I was talking about setting up themed bars around the office, but no. It’s even better.





This is a way of evaluating an employee’s performance. Rather than allowing managers to decide what it means to be good in the company, BARS provide specific examples of behaviors that represent good versus average versus poor performance. So you take the ambiguity out of it, and you make the process a lot more objective, thereby reducing the role of unconscious bias.

Calling it like it is

You’d truly have to be living under a rock or, to put it lightly, be pretty backward in your thinking, not to recognize the extreme importance of diversity in the workplace. With this focus on diversifying teams, many conscious or unconscious actions may come into play, like microaggressions. The good thing is that, before it costs you a talented employee, you can give your team the tools to fight it and turn your company into a beautiful, safe place for everyone. Never forget that calling out microaggressions can serve as a deterrent. From the perspective of social-justice advocates, accountability incentivizes more thoughtful communication across lines of gender, race, sexuality, and gender identity. It creates empathy that can help lead to a more inclusive atmosphere. Will you be trying out one of these?

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