The Dark Side of Remote Work: The Rise of Microaggressions and What Employers Need to Do

The Dark Side of Remote Work: The Rise of Microaggressions and What Employers Need to Do

The Dark Side of Remote Work: The Rise of Microaggressions and What Employers Need to Do

The Dark Side of Remote Work: The Rise of Microaggressions and What Employers Need to Do

The Dark Side of Remote Work

The Dark Side of Remote Work: The Rise of Microaggressions and What Employers Need to Do

Just how much do employees like — or make that love — remote work? A whopping 4 out of 5 Canadian workers say that they would seek a new job if their employer completely eliminated this option. However, despite its popularity, there is a dark side to remote work that has employees and employers by surprise: a surge in microaggressions.

Understanding Microaggressions in Remote Work

Microaggressions are statements, actions, or incidents that are regarded as an instances of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of marginalized groups, such as a racial, ethnic, or religious minority.

Of course, and unfortunately, microaggressions at work — or across society in general — are hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, they’re prehistoric. But what is new is how remote work is enabling microaggressive behavior to take place.

“Monitoring for harassment online is not exactly a new development, but working from home during a pandemic when tensions may be higher than normal has certainly given employers a reason to be more diligent about workplace harassment that does not occur in person,” commented lawyer Mike MacLellan in an interview with Human Resources Director Canada. “Further, new communication tools like Teams and Zoom have given workers a way to stay in communication but also a new setting in which harassment can occur.”

Examples of Microaggressions in Remote Work

It is also important to grasp that microaggressions are not necessarily or even usually behaviors that typically fall into the categories that most people associate with discrimination, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. They include all actions or incidents that on some level convey stereotypes, negative traits, disrespect, or insensitivity (general or specific). Examples of such transgressions include an employee who:

  • Repeatedly and regularly interrupts or “talks over” colleagues.
  • Refers to one or more colleagues as “crazy” or “insane.”
  • Excessively questions without basis the competency of a member of a minority group on a topic in which they are knowledgeable.
  • Refuses to respect a colleague’s preferred pronouns. This can include disregarding preferred pronouns or going to the other extreme and over-emphasizing preferred pronouns in order to humiliate and intimidate.

“[I]n Ontario workplace harassment has a statutory definition,” added MacLellan. “It’s a course of vexatious comment or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome’…a single microaggression likely will not constitute workplace harassment. However, when microaggressions go unchecked they have a ‘macro’ effect on the recipient.”

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Mitigating the Dark Side of Remote Work

What can employers do to minimize the frequency of microaggressions — both remotely and in-person — while weeding out employees who think that discriminating against members of a minority group is not just appropriate but necessary?

According to, principles and best practices that can help employers counter microaggressions include:

  • Leaders must set the standards and adhere to them.
  • Everyone must reflect and acknowledge their own biases and commit to improving.
  • Training and coaching must focus on not just how actions and messages are intended but also on how they are received.
  • Create a work environment that promotes opportunities for honest feedback while fostering empathy and compassion.
  • Know how, why, and when to publicly call out microaggressions and when it is better suited for a private conversation (in most cases, consultation with the victim(s) of the unacceptable behavior should influence this decision).
  • Have processes that set standards for behavior and formal responses and document everything.

“One of the quickest ways to erode psychological safety is microaggressions, which are the indirect or unintentional expressions of racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism,” commented Michelle Penelope King, a gender equality advisor and researcher. “The need to belong at work is more important than ever…creating a workplace where employees feel psychologically safe enough to be themselves is the starting point for valuing difference at work.”


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