Why you should never tell your coworker they’re ‘well-spoken’

While a quarter of respondents were certain they faced a microaggression at work, 22% were unsure of how to define microaggression.

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Microaggressions are those comments that are rude at best, racist and sexist at worst, but in an under-the-radar way that’s hard to pinpoint or call out. Often, perpetrators aren’t aware that they’re even saying something wrong because of unconscious bias.

Microaggressions can be so subtle or indirect that people aren’t always sure that they have even experienced, or witnessed, such behavior, according to the results of a survey of 4,275 people by SurveyMonkey in partnership with Fortune.


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Microaggressions are everywhere

Respondents were able to give plenty of examples, however. “A senior partner asked to ‘touch my hair’ in order to confirm it was ‘all mine,’ ” wrote one. Another recounted being interrupted by an older male colleague in a meeting with the words, ‘Now, young lady … ‘ ”

Another common microaggression, especially for people of color, is being told one is “well-spoken.” “It implies that being black and well-spoken isn’t the norm,” wrote one respondent.

A majority (68%) of Americans said microaggressions were a serious problem.

While a quarter (26%) of respondents were certain they faced a microaggression at work, 22% were unsure – perhaps owing to the vague definition of the microaggression.

And while 36% witnessed microaggressions in their workplace, 24% were unsure if they had or not.

Examples of microaggressions that people said might cause them to quit were unprofessional behavior, hearing belittling comments about peers, and having their idea taken by someone else.

A very self-aware 10% believed that they had personally committed a microaggression. Managers were frequently fingered as the microaggressors by survey respondents.

But people seem to believe that an apology and some education can go a long way in stamping out bias – much longer than punishment:

  • 67% think the aggressor should be made to apologize
  • 47% think managers should talk to their employees about potential microaggressions
  • 40% think HR should step in
  • 30% think that aggressors should have to undergo anti-bias training (though this number goes up to 40% among people who have experienced a microaggression)
  • Only 9% think the perpetrator should be fired

Heidi Williams, the CTO of tEQuitable, a platform that addresses bias and discrimination in the workplace, said the environment around these issues should be, “It’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.”


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.