Subtle Bias: Micro-Inequities and Micro-Aggressions

This article was originally published for SHRM Blog and can be found here.

I am pleased to include a link to an article I wrote last month for Entrepreneur on subtle bias: How Entrepreneurs Can Spot Subtle Bias

The focus is on what I collectively call “micro-indignities”: micro-inequities and micro-aggressions.

There are often are complex definitions for these terms. But the definitions can be simplified.

Generally speaking, a micro inequity is a slight that demeans or marginalizes the recipient.

Generally speaking, a micro aggression is an act that stereotypes or denigrates the recipient.

In my prior article for, I provided a few examples based on gender, race and ethnicity, In this blog, I restate them and include many more.

My recommendation is that these types of micro-indignities be included in management training to maximize inclusion and to minimize employees’ feeling marginalized or demeaned and responding to same by legal or other means.

Micro-inequities tend to apply without direct regard to the object’s EEO identity.

A few examples:

  • The leader says good morning to everyone but one person.
  • A manager repeatedly ignores the existence of a colleague in the elevator.
  • A group of employees go out for coffee or drinks after work and leave one person on the team consistently behind.
    In these cases, the micro-inequity may or may not relate to an employee’s membership in a protected group. Even if it is not, it is still a problem. But, in some cases, it does relate to protected status, whether the result of conscious or unconscious bias.

Micro-aggressions are almost always specific to an individual’s EEO identity.

Here are some examples:

  • I went to see a woman doctor. Scrap the woman; her gender is irrelevant.
  • I did not know you like white music (said to an African American). What is white music? I thought Bach was appreciated by diverse groups.
  • You don’t sound black. You mean I don’t sound like your negative stereotype?
  • To a woman of color: you are so articulate. And you seemed so surprised.
  • You don’t look Jewish. Perhaps you can educate me on what Jewish people look like?
  • He is Christian, but very open-minded. Thank you for showing me how closed your mind is.
  • It’s great you don’t have any accent (to a Korean American). Well, since my great grandparents came here from Korea, I am not sure why I would.
  • How young are you (to someone age 75)? How ageist and patronizing are you?
  • I never would have guessed you were gay. Well, perhaps stop guessing.
  • You have a lot of energy for an old guy. And self-restraint too, because I am going to bite my tongue, kid.
  • Isn’t it nice that you are helping your wife out with the kids at home? I don’t need your validation. Plus, they are my kids, too.
  • You are no shrinking violent. And I mean that as a complement. Well, I am a COO so of course I am no shrinking violent. Your comment was sexist. I mean that as a compliment, too, of course, assuming you define compliment to mean disgust.
  • You are doing such a great job (to a disabled employee who is doing no better than anyone else.) This one is said with a condescending tone, as if,” wow.” And, by condescending, I mean talking down to someone.
  • I thought that way when I was young. Just because we think differently does not mean your thinking has evolved beyond mine!
  • Are you ladies going shopping at lunch? Will you guys be shaving your knuckles?

Sadly, I could go on and on. But I think you get the picture. In many of the examples given, the individual thinks he or she is paying a compliment. And that, my friends, is what makes it all the worse. So address this in training so that these types of micro-indignities diminish, if not disappear.

These are my views only and are not intended as legal advice.

Jonathan A. Segal

About Jonathan A. Segal

Jonathan’s preventive and corrective approach to employment/HR issues includes counseling, policies, training, agreements and audits. Areas of substantive focus include, for example: gender equality, wage and hour compliance, social media and employee engagement. When Jonathan isn’t counseling employers or dedicating his time to SHRM and the HR community, he can be found volunteering his time and efforts to animal rescue. Jonathan is also mad about Mad Men, writing and speaking on the employment issues arising out of the MadMen Era! Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.