Not every instance of bias or discrimination at work involves outright harassment. In many cases, employees may not be able to point to a major event or series of events that meet the definition of discrimination.

However, microaggressions – slights that reveal conscious or unconscious bias against a marginalized group in the workplace – can destroy employees’ productivity and their careers.

Identifying microaggression

Perhaps the company hired a woman for her expertise, but every time she starts to speak up in a meeting, one of her male co-workers interrupts her, and then gets credit for her contributions. This is a microaggression based on gender bias, and it often makes career advancement very difficult for women. A female employee may also find herself trying to explain something to a co-worker only to have him ignore her and begin trying to explain her own ideas and concepts to her. 

These same scenarios could occur due to racial bias, as well as gender bias. There are also some microaggressions that are more specific to racial discrimination. For example, maybe a co-worker assumes that people who are not Caucasian are not likely to have as good a grasp on the English language. Commenting that someone speaks the language well, or is very articulate, implies that there is something unusual about his or her language skills. Many people who experience this were born in the United States and speak English as their first language.

Addressing microaggression

It may be possible to respond to a co-worker in private and let him or her know that the behavior or comment is offensive, and why. Many people do not actually intend to offend. On the other hand, when confronted, it is common for people to get defensive and deny that there should be any problem with what they said or did. 

When the problem is with a co-worker, the next solution may be to go to a manager or speak to someone in the Human Resources department. However, if discrimination or bias are ingrained in the company culture, these steps may not be successful. Employees who believe that these behaviors and attitudes are affecting their ability to advance in the company and in their career may want to make a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They may even want to take their case to court.