Dangerous micro-messages in the workplace

On Behalf of | Feb 10, 2021 | Harassment |

It is not uncommon for workers to face overt hostility in the workplace. While certain forms of discrimination, harassment and retaliation might be more obvious, other types of negative messaging might be more difficult to recognize.

In recent years, more and more studies have been published detailing the negative psychological and occupational impact of micro-messaging. These subconscious or covert workplace messages can discourage and devalue employees at all levels within the organization. Often referred to as “micro-aggressions,” certain negative messaging is readily apparent in a diverse workforce where specific groups might feel attacked or mistreated when compared to other groups.

Micro-messages are not always verbal in nature. While verbal communication is common in the workplace, messages can also be delivered based on looks, gestures or tones. There are countless forms of micro-messages, but the most powerful examples often fall into two types of scenarios:

  • Introduction scenarios: When a new-hire is introduced to the seasoned members of the workforce or has transferred to a new department, the supervisor has an opportunity to provide a strong introduction. If the supervisor simply refers to the new employee by name, failing to note accomplishments or providing a positive endorsement, the other employees have immediately received a negative micro-message and an unflattering characterization of the new worker. Additionally, if several new employees are introduced and one is given a substandard presentation when compared to others, this can harm the workforce’s perception of him or her.
  • Greeting scenarios: When a supervisor walks the floor or enters the workplace for the day, he or she might greet everyone in the same manner. However, if a certain worker is snubbed or ignored regularly, it can lead to feelings of mistrust and devaluation. Other employees will quickly pick up on the fact that the manager or supervisor does not welcome a certain worker and their own personal attitudes toward this individual will be influenced. The message delivered is akin to: this particular employee is not important enough to greet.

Negative micro-messages can quickly grow to cause a hostile work environment. The cascade effect is dramatic in the workplace. If a worker is consistently discouraged, undermined or devalued in front of other employees, the entire workplace can turn negative. Whether subconscious or simply hidden, these messages lead to overt hostility, discrimination or harassment in the workplace.


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