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Responding to Microaggressions: As a Bystander

| Senior Consultant  
Pin-ya develops and facilitates Paradigm’s high-impact trainings, drawing from years of experience in psychological research, teaching, and leadership development.


This blog is the third in a series based on Paradigm Reach microlearning videos focused on microaggressions. In this blog, we will explain how you can support and advocate for individuals when you witness a microaggressive interaction. 

What Are Microaggressions? 

Microaggressions are subtle and brief interactions that signal to a person that they are devalued or stand out disfavorably because of some aspect of their identity. Interpretations around what is or is not a microaggression can vary from person to person. It can depend on individual relationships, trust levels, and a host of other considerations. Nevertheless, if you witness a microaggression, it is important to take action to protect the individual and the overall workplace culture from future offenses. 

Knowing that we should take action in some way – whether speaking up immediately or having a private conversation with the aggressor later – is key, but it doesn’t mean we’ll always know how. We’ve all had those moments where we are a bit tongue-tied, especially in the moment. Here we’ll present a few questions that help you process those moments.  

How to Respond When Witnessing Microaggressions In the Workplace 

Show Support 

First, is the impacted person or group present? If the answer is yes, then the next question is, are they speaking up? If they are, then your job is to amplify their message. Support what they’re saying by agreeing vocally.   

Second, if they are not speaking up, then check in with that person. This might mean using nonverbal cues like a quick eyebrow raise or a fleeting glance to get the person’s attention, or a private message on the digital platform you’re using. There are many reasons why someone who is a target of a microaggression might not say something about it, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t notice. So, let them know that you noticed, too.   

But that’s not enough. You’ve also got to speak up yourself! If you’re not really sure what to do, use “I” statements so that you avoid sounding like you’re speaking for anyone else. For example, if someone uses an outdated term that might be offensive, try saying, “I learned recently that the more updated term to use is BLANK” and share a little about why. 

Be an Advocate 

If the impacted person or group is not present, your job is to advocate on their behalf. People say things all the time “behind closed doors” because they think they’re in the company of people who share their beliefs or perspectives. When it comes to microaggressions, you’ve got to hold people accountable if and especially when the impacted person or group isn’t present. It might be helpful to think of advocacy as having a person’s voice in my head. If you know your team well, you probably know how certain people would react to certain comments or ideas, and even when they’re not present, I do my best to reflect their perspective. 

No matter what, saying something, whenever you have the chance to do so, is important. 

Addressing Microaggressions in the Workplace 

When you witness microaggressions at work, don’t be a silent bystander. Silence implies consent with unacceptable behavior directed at an individual or a group of people. Ask yourself whether you need to be an ally or an advocate based on whether the person or people affected are speaking up for themselves in the situation. Learn more about microaggressions and how to respond to them with our resources in Paradigm Reach. 

November 4, 2022

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