Micro-Aggressions And Phubbing In The Age Of FoMO

Phubbing (phone snubbing) has been identified as one of the most common forms of unconscious bias in today’s workplace and society due to the fear of missing out on important information from our social networks.

The need for diversity training focusing on overt forms of bias in the workplace has almost been eliminated due to social pressure and legal statute. The focus of diversity training now has turned to systemic organizational processes and social interactions. Micro-aggressions, a form of unconscious bias, remain a significant problem that directly influences employee engagement, morale, and retention. Diversity training now is focusing on how to eliminate micro-aggressions at work (https://www.fastcompany.com/3068670/how-to-shut-downmicroagressions-at-work).

One particular form of micro-aggressions, phubbing (phone snubbing), has been identified as one of the most common and insidious forms of unconscious bias. Phubbing increasingly has become a social issue in today’s workplace and society due to FoMO (the fear of missing out on important information from our social networks). Training programs that address these current issues effectively can improve a sense of belonging and inclusion, especially for those who may already feel disrespected, powerless, and disengaged at work.

Chances are good that everyone has observed micro-aggressions at work. Micro-aggressions are barely noticeable tiny expressions of a deepseated (and often, unintentional) bias against someone else based on something that is core to their identity, such as their race, religion, age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or appearance. They are deeply rooted in the subconscious, so much so that the offender may not even be aware of the bias or its expression. Microaggressions can take the form of body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, or word choice.


  • Constantly interrupting someone while they are speaking
  • Mistakenly leaving names off a list
  • Referring to someone by the wrong name
  • Repeatedly mispronouncing someone's name or misspelling it
  • Leaving someone out of a discussion or a project
  • Reading/sending e-mails during a conversation
  • Looking at your watch when someone is speaking
  • Not introducing someone in a meeting
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Cutting down ideas before they can be entertained
  • Change in body posture (body language)
  • Change in voice pitch, volume, or rate
  • Fake, masked, or forced smiles

Have you ever approached your manager and he or she addresses you while looking at his or her cell phone? How does it feel? What can the impact be, especially when it seems to be one more example of disrespect you are feeling? Drop by drop, each micro-aggression adds up.

Any one slight may seem minor, but since small imbalances and disadvantages accrue, they can have major consequences in terms of an employee’s feeling of belonging. The cumulative impact of micro-aggressions on groups who already feel ignored, disrespected, and powerless can be substantial. As one attendee in a micro-aggressions class explained, “Mountains are molehills piled on top of each other.”


A major scientific study on phubbing describes the growth of this trend and its consequences at work and socially (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563216303454). In another study, titled “Put Down Your Phone and Listen to Me: How boss phubbing undermines the psychological conditions necessary for employee engagement,” Baylor University professors James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David report that as a result of “boss phubbing,” employees expressed less trust in their manager. Phubbed employees were less likely to feel they could trust their “supervisor to keep the promises he or she makes” or trust their “supervisor will treat them fairly.” This lack of trust led phubbed individuals to be less psychologically available to perform their jobs since they felt they did not have adequate managerial support, tools, or information.

This study demonstrates that a phubbed employee’s psychological safety also is imperiled by such behavior. These employees were less confident that they could reveal their true selves without fear of negatively affecting their sense of self-worth, job security, or career path. Furthermore, phubbed employees were less satisfied with opportunities available for their advancement and less loyal and proud of their organization overall.

The end result of micro-aggressions and phubbing is lower levels of job satisfaction and self-reported job performance. Boss-phubbed employees rated their job performance lower than fellow employees who reported lower levels of boss phubbing.


FoMO, which includes the fears, worries, and anxieties people may have in relation to being in (or out of) touch with the events, experiences, and conversations happening across their extended social circles has been found to be associated with persistent mobile phone overuse. Generational differences in mobile phone overuse contribute to different norms in phubbing and feelings of being excluded at work. Additionally, men differ from women in that they view phone call interruptions as more appropriate in virtually all environments. This male/female dynamic exacerbates any existing inequity between male bosses and their female peers or subordinates.


Awareness is the only way to reduce and prevent phubbing and other forms of micro-aggressions. We often are unaware of our micro-aggressions, even though those we offend can be very conscious of the situation. Due to inequities of power, those who suffer from micro-aggressions often suffer in silence, while those who commit the micro-aggressions may have no idea they are being disrespectful.

Training in a safe environment with a sensitive and experienced facilitator can result in quick, impactful results and many “aha moments.” Such training, which should be done in person, brings the unconscious to the conscious level for all.

The most effective training approach combines assessments, group discussions, videos, and simulations. The simulations and followup discussions are particularly useful if you have several levels of employees in the same room who represent the diversity of the workforce. Participants can practice how to respond to micro-aggressions directed at them and others, while those committing micro-aggressions learn to become more mindful, and practice how to ask for forgiveness and learn from their mistakes. Ironically, the mobile phone—which has improved communication—has become a ubiquitous tool for exclusion, as well.

Please share your experiences and insights regarding micro-aggressions and phubbing with me at ngoodman@global-dynamics.com for possible use in a follow-up column.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.globaldynamics.com.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D.
Dr. Neal Goodman is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, and coach on DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion), global leadership, global mindset, and cultural intelligence. Organizations based on four continents seek his guidance to build and sustain their global and multicultural success. He is CEO of the Neal Goodman Group and can be reached at: Neal@NealGoodmanGroup.com. Dr. Goodman is the founder and former CEO of Global Dynamics Inc.