On Microaggressions, Language, and Inclusion in the Time of Gen AI

Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)
Published in
9 min readMar 11, 2024


The social and racial reckoning in the wake of the George Floyd murder in May 2020 made many acutely aware of automatic patterns of behaviors and how our use of language shapes our reality and impacts the reality of others.

A term to identify these features of thought and speech around diversity and inclusion became popularized as microaggression, which can be verbal, non-verbal, or environmental.

About 30 months later, OpenAI released its ChatGPT model to the public, making us intensely interested in how to automate language — the very opposite of being thoughtful about it. GenAI bias has been widely reported, most recently with Google’s Gemini.

When we asked ChapGPT how Large Language Models (LLMs) ensure that they don’t commit microaggressions, it responded:

Language models like mine, such as GPT-3.5, are trained on diverse datasets to understand and generate human-like text. However, it’s important to note that the training process involves learning from the patterns present in the data, and the model doesn’t have inherent consciousness, awareness, or the ability to actively avoid microaggressions.

It is all the more imperative and even urgent, then, that we retain the consciousness, awareness, and ability to catch our own microagressive thoughts, words, and actions and help other to do the same, while technology developers ensure that the LLMs are not replicating structures we have been working hard to dismantle.

In this article, we describe how microaggressions can erode confidence, well-being, and organizational harmony — much like the gradual but destructive process of corrosion. With each overlooked microaggression, the integrity of our well-being and organizational culture weakens, like metal succumbing to the relentless forces of its environment.

We also share some practices to help individuals and organizations focus on how to redouble efforts to pause to think about speech and how it impacts our reality and that of others.

Addressing microaggressions requires confronting them head-on and understanding their origins and the intentions behind them. This shift from accusation to open dialogue and discovery is important for fostering a culture of growth and empathy within organizations in a digital, emotionally tired, and geographically distanced world.

Hanging on by a thread (source: Unsplash)

What are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are more than throwaway gestures or insensitive comments; they differ from insults. Microaggressions are the everyday slights, insults, putdowns, invalidations, and offensive behaviors that people experience in daily interactions with generally well-intentioned individuals who may be unaware that they have engaged in demeaning ways.

What differentiates microaggressions from overt discrimination is that those who commit microaggressions tend to do so unintentionally or unconsciously. Because of this, one may not be aware they have committed a microaggression and, therefore, are unaware of the impact of their behavior or words on those around them.

Questions such as “Where are you from?” or comments such as “You are sharply dressed” are most often well-intentioned yet come across as negative, discriminatory, or demeaning. Other examples of microaggressions include giving someone a nickname because their name “is too difficult to pronounce,” telling a transgender person they “don’t look trans,” or making assumptions about age, which may look like asking a younger individual, “How have you accomplished all of that at your age?” or telling an older person “Woah, you are pretty good at technology!”

Remarks like “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion” or “I don’t see color” not only invalidate the experiences of those on the receiving end but also perpetuate existing power imbalances. Such attempts to undermine or dismiss others’ feelings and experiences through gaslighting are unacceptable. The harmful effects of gaslighting, as discussed by domestic abuse specialist Evie Muir, underscore the importance of taking microaggressions seriously.

Corrosive Words, Costly Consequences

In their 2022 meta-synthesis for the Human Resource Development Review, Dr. Iain Smith and Dr. Amanda Griffiths highlight a crucial oversight: the tendency of companies to focus on overt discrimination while ignoring the more frequent, subtle slights.

While microaggressions may seem small, their impact can be significant. A growing body of research has found that microaggressions are at least as damaging as overt discrimination. Microaggressions negatively impact the mental and physical health of those on the receiving end, and they have been correlated with decreased performance, disengagement, decreased organizational commitment, lower confidence in achieving professional goals, and poorer relationship quality with supervisors. Human capital and employee engagement are impaired when talent is central to performance.

In the medical field, microaggressions negatively impact patient outcomes.

Summary and overview of key statistics

The consequences of unaddressed microaggressions are significant: according to McKinsey, women who experience microaggressions are three times more likely to consider leaving their jobs and four times more likely to experience burnout.

Women who experience microaggressions are much less likely to feel psychologically safe, which makes it harder to take risks, propose new ideas, or raise concerns. Why? Because the stakes feel too high. Further, research finds that 78% of women who encounter microaggressions adopt self-shielding tactics at work, such as altering their behavior or appearance to avoid adverse reactions.

This is particularly common among Black women, who are more than twice as likely as other women to engage in code-switching, and LGBTQ+ women, who might feel an increased pressure to modify their appearance for professional acceptance.

Thus, by neglecting to address microaggressions, companies risk not only the well-being of their employees but also the loss of valuable talent and a diverse perspective — and make it harder to build and maintain strong bonds.

Finally, the future of work is even more diverse. The new reality of five generations coexisting in the workforce has thrust our use of language and its consequential impact on others into the forefront. By 2031, nearly a quarter of employees will be 55 or older. Recent books and articles on cliches related to agism and GenZ workers alert us to the risk of pitting generations against each other instead of benefiting from their complementarity.

Finally, for the first time, 60% of 18-year-olds checked the “two or more races” box on the 2020 US Census.

The Corrosive Nature of Undiscussed Microaggressions

Let’s consider the metaphor of corrosion a bit further. Corrosion is the deterioration of a material, usually a metal, resulting from a reaction to its environment. Corrosion doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a slow process that eventually compromises the strength and integrity of the metal. Similarly, the damage from microaggressions accumulates over time, eroding the individual’s sense of self and the collective fabric of the workplace.

Denaturation (photo credit by Kevin Noble on Unsplash)

The corrosion of metal also impacts the stress-strain curve, a measure of how a material reacts under stress and the point at which the pressure on a material risks denaturing the material. The more corroded a metal, the less elastic it is.

Because corrosion negatively affects the desirable properties of the metal, there is a point at which the metal cannot return to the prior state even if stress is lifted. And, if stress continues and conditions are not changed, failure ensues.

In the early stages of corrosion, it is relatively easy to stop its progression if action is taken. If not, corrosion will continue to the point of complete deterioration. The same is true for microaggressions—if swift action is taken, it is possible to mitigate damage. If not, the negative mental and physical impacts of microaggressions will begin to impact the individual — and may contribute to burnout.

When organizations and the individuals who inhabit them tolerate microaggressions, they risk individual or collective weakening of the social fabric as well as themselves. When microaggressions are tolerated or excused rather than stopped, a precedent is set — that the behavior is ok.

When it is clear that the behavior is ok, it will not just continue but is also likely to cease to surprise or shock and will continue to spread. As with corrosion, over time, the health of the individual and the organization both deteriorate.

Just as corrosion can be mitigated with the right interventions, so too can the impact of microaggressions.

How to Mitigate Microaggressions

A challenge to mitigating microaggressions is a lack of understanding of their real impact. Only when individuals and organizations recognize the extent to which microaggressions can negatively impact mental and physical health will microaggressions get the attention they deserve.

Because microaggressions often stem from unconscious biases rather than a deliberate intent to harm, it is important to create spaces for open and honest conversations. These discussions can help individuals recognize their biases, understand the impact of their words and actions, and learn from the experiences of others; the goal is to move from a defensive posture to one of mutual understanding and respect.

To counteract the corrosive effects of microaggressions and build a more inclusive and supportive environment, emphasis must be placed on dialogue that encourages reflection, acknowledgment of unintentional harm, and collaborative growth.

By prioritizing understanding and constructive engagement over blame, organizations can strengthen their cultural integrity and ensure the well-being of all members. This approach aligns with the broader goal of addressing the overt storms of discrimination and the subtle, erosive impacts of microaggressions on organizational harmony and individuals.

Mitigating microaggressions starts with recognition and understanding — acknowledging just how often they occur and the harm they cause. It requires creating a culture where allyship is not just encouraged but practiced. Allyship involves more than awareness; it’s about taking action, speaking up, and creating spaces where everyone feels valued and heard.

The Center for Creative Leadership describes allyship in the workplace as “the actions, behaviors, and practices that leaders take to support, amplify, and advocate with others, most especially with individuals who don’t belong to the same social identities as themselves.” More broadly, allyship describes the role of opposing discrimination and supporting colleagues.

Allyship is more than being aware of and highlighting problems; it is about driving lasting change. This is because allies speak up and take action if they witness microaggressions; they signal that the behavior is wrong and, in doing so, validate the experience of the individual to whom the microaggression was directed.

Dr. Poornima Luthra, associate professor at the Copenhagen Business School and author of the book Diversifying Diversity: Your Guide to Being an Active Ally of Inclusion in the Workplace, shares, “Allyship is active, not passive. It requires frequent and consistent behaviors. Allyship is not performative. It’s about lifting others and creating platforms for them so that their voices are heard. Allyship is not about fixing others.”

In short, allyship is about embedding behaviors of curiosity, empathy, and responsibility into our daily interactions. It’s about being active allies who recognize injustice and take steps to address it, ensuring our workplaces are not sites of corrosion but rather places of strength and resilience.

Doing our Part to Build Precious Organizations

Just as corrosion subtly undermines the integrity of the metal, microaggressions erode the psychological safety and well-being of individuals, particularly affecting women and those with traditionally marginalized identities. These seemingly minor slights and insults lead to decreased job satisfaction, increased burnout, and a higher likelihood of employees considering leaving their jobs. This impacts both individuals and organizations, the latter losing valuable talent and diverse perspectives.

The choice is ours. We can allow the corrosive effects of microaggressions to undermine our workplaces, or we can take action to prevent the deterioration of our collective well-being. Understanding microaggressions and dedicating ourselves to proactive allyship can mitigate the corrosive impact these behaviors have on our workplaces.

We can create more inclusive and supportive work environments by embedding behaviors such as curiosity, empathy, and courageous responsibility into our daily interactions.

By doing so, we initiate a transformative process, converting environments marked by tension and degradation into vibrant spaces where diversity flourishes. This shift mirrors the transition from metal weakened by corrosion to a resilient structure that, through care and maintenance, retains its strength and integrity.

Ultimately, the goal is transforming workplaces from mental minefields into spaces of mutual respect and understanding. By recognizing and addressing microaggressions, organizations can prevent the deterioration of their social fabric and promote a culture of growth and resilience. Just as early action can avoid the severe consequences of metal corrosion, swift and informed responses to microaggressions can preserve and enhance the health and vitality of workplace communities.

As we navigate the complexities of our professional environments, let’s choose to be the kind of metal that withstands the pressures of bias and discrimination, becoming more robust and resilient in the process.

Let’s commit to recognizing, addressing, and ultimately preventing the corrosion caused by microaggressions, creating inclusive, supportive, and vibrant workplaces. Together, we can forge a future where intolerance is the only thing that corrodes.

That future, however, will be increasingly digital and automated. As Gen AI speech becomes intermingled with our own speech at blistering speed, some researchers claim microaggressions constitute a distinct form of algorithmic bias (example here). ChatGPT is now hearing, seeing, and speaking.

So we must also remain vigilant about how Gen AI might be biasing our minds and speech and, as a result, weaken our relationships, organizations and societies.

Gen AI might not have intent, but neither is it an ally — so far. That responsibility falls on us all.

Kate Lee and I thank Arturo Natella and Demetriouse Russell for their input and perspectives.



Carin-Isabel Knoop (on Humans in the Digital Era)
Writer for

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about improving lives at work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.