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Diversity and inclusion continue to be at the forefront for organizations seeking to employ a diverse workforce and create a respectful workplace where everyone feels welcome. As we ring in the new year, we anticipate that diversity and inclusion will continue to be one of the big HR trends for 2021.

2021 will be the year of following through on the diversity and inclusion promises that were made in 2020. It’s important to not lose momentum in your diversity and inclusion efforts, or you risk undoing all of the hard work put in to get you where you are today.

While most workplaces have put in the effort to establish bullying and harassment policies and provide training to tackle discrimination, some subtle and implicit forms of discrimination can still go unnoticed. To build a truly inclusive workplace culture, employers need to be aware of and confront microaggressions. While they may sound small, microaggressions can have a big impact on employees’ wellbeing.

What is a microaggression?

A microaggression is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “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)”.  

Microaggressions are usually unintentional. They occur when implicit biases (the attitudes, assumptions, and stereotypes that unconsciously affect our actions) lead someone to say or do something inadvertently discriminatory. Microaggressions aren’t just rude or insensitive comments, they are ingrained with unconscious bias toward someone’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, or disability.  

Microaggressions can be broken down into three categories:

  1. Microinsults:unintentional and often unconscious discriminatory behaviour or comments.
  2. Microassaults: overt and conscious discriminatory behaviour without the intent to be offensive,

such as racist or sexist jokes.  

  • Microinvalidations: verbal statements that deny, minimize, or undermine the experiences of members of a marginalized group.


Microaggressions can be difficult to identify because they are often subtle and not intended to be malicious. Because of this, recipients and witnesses to the comment might wonder if they are being too sensitive in taking offense. To get a better idea of what a microaggression is, here are a few examples of what it might look like in the workplace:

  • A female executive is repeatedly interrupted and spoken over by a male colleague during meeting, who assumes he knows more than she does
  • An employee tells their Chinese Canadian co-worker “your English is really good!”, insinuating that it’s unusual for a visible minority to be fluent or well-spoken 
  • An employee says to the team “I’m being so OCD today, I can’t stop organizing my office!”, minimizing and making a joke of mental illness.
  • An employee continues to use the wrong pronouns for their transgender colleague, despite being corrected multiple times.

What can we do about it?

As individuals, we can start by making an effort to recognize our own biases, apologize genuinely if we commit a microaggression, and be open to feedback if we accidentally hurt someone. If you’re on the receiving end, or if you witness a microaggression happen, speak up and address it. Remember that microaggressions are often unintentional and outside the realm of awareness, so the individual may become defensive when they hear how their behaviour has been perceived. For this reason, try “calling people in” rather than calling them out. The intent is not to shame or “call out” the individual, but to show kindness, openness, and a willingness to engage in conversation to address concerns.

Microaggressions can slip under the radar at work because they’re subtle, and employees may not know if they should be reported. For employers, the first step in addressing microaggressions in the workplace is to be aware that they’re happening. Employers need to be vigilant and create an awareness of implicit bias among their staff. Take the time to educate employees on microaggressions and the negative impacts they can have on the workplace. Finally, reinforce a culture of openness and willingness to discuss bias and learn from mistakes.

Engaged HR Assignment:

Want to build a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture? The best place to start is educating and creating awareness among your team. We can help. Sign up for The Art of Diversity and Inclusion online course, or reach out to us to learn more about our Diversity and Inclusion services.

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