Recognizing and addressing microaggressions at work A guide for students

Recognizing and addressing microaggressions at work: A guide for students

“My latest article is about microaggressions and was targeted for CPA students who are just starting out in their careers. Regardless of the stage of your career, no one should have to experience them. Learn more about what they are and what you can do if you experience one”

Picture this: It’s your second week in your co-op term at an amazing firm. It’s a great opportunity with lots of training, hands-on work, and a chance to engage with interesting and diverse clientele. You’ve spent the last couple weeks onboarding with the firm and getting to know your colleagues. Your supervisor, Sally, has been great.

Sally invites you to an online working session where you meet some of the firm’s most senior team members and help out on financial reporting and strategy for a client. You are assigned to a breakout room to work on some key deliverables, and you’re excited.

In your breakout room, everyone introduces themselves, and the team welcomes you. After you introduce yourself, one of the team members asks, “Where are you from?”

 “I grew up in south Edmonton,” you say.

 “Sure, but where are you actually from?”

“Where are you actually from?” is just one of many common microaggressions that happen in the workplace, and while it may seem like an innocent question, it has a huge impact in making colleagues feel othered and unwelcome in professional settings.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are subtle and can be unintentional, but their impact is significant. They include insults, dismissals, or invalidations based on, but not limited to, race, gender, ability, age, identity, orientation, or religion. They can sound like:

  • Microinsult: “It’s great to see someone from your community with such great skills, so welcome to the firm.” This assumes skill is novel or unusual due to ethnicity, race, or cultural heritage, not individual ability.
  • Microinvalidation: “Sure, but where are you actually from?” This assumes the person is from elsewhere based on race or cultural heritage, which invalidates a person’s actual experience.
  • Microassault: Telling a racist joke and then saying, “I was just kidding.” This is intentionally participating in a discriminatory activity but not wanting to appear as offensive.

What should I do if I experience a microaggression at work?

It can help to decide in advance what your strategy will be if you experience or witness a microaggression at work. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Take a deep breath and stay calm. What you heard or saw is real.
  • Decide if, how, and when you want to respond. Will you use humour, create a conversation with the person about it, or ignore it completely? 
    • If you decide not to respond, tell a trusted colleague or supervisor to get perspective.
    • If you respond, share with the person how what happened made you feel. This can help create more understanding about your experience.
  • Contact HR to get advice, especially if the person you are responding to is more senior than you.

No one should have to experience microaggressions. As a young professional, knowing what they are, creating a strategy for yourself, and being an ally for others will help you and your organization move forward positively.

Read it live on the Capitalize website!

Pauline Greenidge

Pauline Greenidge is an HR Consultant and Chartered Professional in Human Resources. She empowers others to create positive employee experiences. Her book A Grand Dinner Party is available on and

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