6 subtle workplace micro-aggressions you may not notice until it’s too late

If you’ve had to undergo HR training at your place of work, the term “microaggression” may already be familiar to you.

“Verbal microaggressions are ambiguous and therefore lead the recipient to feel vaguely insulted,” explains Veronique Ehamo, Doctor of Philosophy in Politics and International Relations. On the surface, many microaggressions may not seem derogatory – in fact, many are masked as compliments, making them hard to spot.

What’s more, many subtle microaggressions can go undetected by both the person on the giving and receiving end. These comments can be a result of unconscious biases employees hold against others. 

Here are a few subtle workplace microaggressions you may not notice – and why it’s important to avoid these comments in the future. 

“Where are you actually from?”

Asking a co-worker or employee about their ethnic background may seem like a way to get to know them better. However, when this question is directed toward a person of color, Ehamo says it implies that their appearance dictates whether or not they can truly identify with the place they reside in. “It reiterates the notion that being a person of color and being American is mutually exclusive,” says Ehamo.  

“I had no idea you were gay / a lesbian / transgender”

This insinuates that having a certain look that clearly implies you’re any of these things is somehow a bad thing – and that conforming to appear as a cis straight person is a desirable goal. If someone shares their gender or sexual orientation with you, there’s no need to comment.

“You’re so well spoken”

This may seem like a compliment – but saying this to a person of color suggests otherwise. “This remark suggests that an assumption was made in line with negative stereotypes of a person’s ability to articulate their thoughts concisely based on their ethnicity,” Ehamo explains. 

“What she’s trying to say is…”

Men are three times more likely to interrupt a woman than a man during a meeting. While this action may just seem like an annoyance, constantly interrupting your female coworker suggests you don’t value her input. Constantly jumping in to paraphrase what your female coworker is “trying to say” also puts down her intelligence, suggesting that she can’t articulate her thoughts without the help of men. 

“Your name is so hard to pronounce, can I call you ___ instead?”

What if someone at a new job asked you if they could call you something completely different because they didn’t care to take the time to learn how to say your name? This behavior suggests that you value this person less because they don’t fit your criteria of what a “normal” name should be. If a co-worker has a name you’re unfamiliar with, asking how to pronounce it and taking the time to learn how to do so correctly is the right approach. 

“You’re so smart”

“Similarly to ‘complimenting’ a person of color’s articulation skills, this insinuates prior assumptions that people of color aren’t normally intelligent and you’ve somehow managed to find the exception,” says Ehamo. “We all know intent versus execution is not always closely attuned.” If you do want to compliment a person of color on a presentation they led, “I learned so much from you today” or similar is a better method.