To Address Racism at Work: Stop Microaggressions First!

With this month’s trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, reflections about the past year’s events involving George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper, and Jacob Blake are stirring new support for racial justice and equality. Organizations and CPA firms have been making public declarations, posting in social media and funding efforts to advance racial equity and justice. But that is not enough. Leaders and team members wonder what more they can do to address racism in the workplace. So where to begin?

Addressing racism can seem overwhelming, seeming almost too big to tackle. This often results in inaction, or worse, hoping that all this unrest will blow over and things will go back to “normal.” But returning to normal isn’t the answer, because normal hasn’t been working.

As leaders, we should begin a new way of thinking and interacting in our workplaces. Creating open forums to discuss areas that must change. Looking carefully at old norms and assessing organizational screening, promotion and pay processes are a good place to start.

We cannot limit our discussions to temporary memes and social media posts or even inspiring messages from our leadership team. We must authentically engage in conversations and look to see where each of us is responsible for racism, particularly against Blacks and African Americans. This is an awkward, uncomfortable proposition for many who want to avoid saying the wrong thing or offending someone.

Most of us believe we are not racist ourselves. But is that enough? No! We have to be more than that. We have to be actively anti-racist.

Start by Understanding the Role of Microaggressions

There is a tremendous volume of change needed to root out systemic racism in our country. Firm leaders are looking inside their own organizations to identify where racial injustice is lurking.

While that is occurring, we each can identify how racism is perpetuated in daily conversation in our workplaces. Often, racist remarks are unconscious, made inadvertently as simple off-hand comments or poor attempts at humor. Sometimes, they are even well-intentioned, but insulting compliments. These racial slights and comments are referred to as microaggressions. Microaggression is defined by Miriam Webster  as, “a comment or action that subtly, and often unconsciously or unintentionally, expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.”

Microaggressions are so ingrained in our society that they are not easily recognized. Learning more about microaggressions and listening for them will raise awareness of them in conversations. A few common examples of microaggressions in the workplace include:

  • “Everyone can succeed if you work harder. We all have equal opportunity here in America.” or “I succeeded because I wasn’t lazy and didn’t rely on society to help me.”

This implies that people of color or other minority groups receive unfair benefits and that discriminatory and racist practices are a thing of the past. Yet, the systemic racism in our hiring, promotion and compensation practices tell a different story for Black and African Americans, especially. There are many examples where Black and African Americans were passed over on a resume because their names sounded non-white, like Jamal or Deja. “Fewer than 1 in 4 companies uses tools to reduce bias when reviewing résumés, even though reviewers often fail to give equal consideration to women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups,” according to Women in the Workplace 2018, a study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey and & Company.

  • “Where are you from?” or “You speak good English.”  

The message here to people of color is that you are not from here, so you do not belong here, or you are not really American. While this comment may be intended as a compliment, it is a slight to people of color or those from another country or region. These statements are not typically made to a white colleague without an accent. Instead of focusing on their accent or speech patterns, focus on what they are saying and truly listen to their message.

  • “Are those braids your ‘real hair’?” or “Straight hair would be more professional looking.”

This message to people of color is that their natural hairstyle is not acceptable. Some firms and organizations still have policies that ban natural hair styles, like braids, afros, or dreadlocks, perpetuating a denial of heritage and uniqueness that is the epitome of systemic racism at work. Work to embrace each individual’s diverse expressions and heritage.

  • I don’t see color.” or “We’re colorblind here.”

Not seeing and acknowledging a person’s color dismisses who they are and the ability to celebrate diversity. It also denies their racial identity, lacking empathy for their experiences and the impact color has had in their ability to progress, despite their hard work and individual effort. Often statements about not seeing color are said by a well-intentioned white person. Instead, consider finding another way to say, “I see us all as equals” by acknowledging specific contributions each person brings to the organization.

Paying attention to our role in microaggressions can help us begin to address the work that needs be done to change systemic racism in our workplace. Everyone can work to stamp out their own microaggressions at work to create a safer, more inclusive environment. What perpetuates these microaggressions is that many people of privilege, do not see them as racist comments and often brush them off with comments like “don’t be so sensitive” or “it was a joke.” However, recipients compare these microaggressions, communicated as jabs, barbs, and innuendos, to experiencing death by a thousand cuts, which is why so many people of color say they are so exhausted.

What Can We do to Become More Aware of Microaggressions and Eliminate Them From our Conversations?

Start by learning about them yourself and helping your team members learn how to address them by:

  • Providing education about microaggressions. Learn the different forms (verbal, behavioral and environmental) and types (microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations) as defined by Medical News Today and explore examples together. Create a Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DE&I) policy following guidelines from resources such as SHRM to demonstrate commitment to anti-racism and being “microaggression-free” in your workplace.

Be sure to engage middle managers in educational programs. Often, it is the middle managers who opt out of diversity and inclusion training because they don’t see the benefit to it.

Another way to learn is to conduct “listening” town halls about racial injustice that can provide an opportunity to learn and continue conversations. Listening sessions are designed for leadership to obtain feedback, generate ideas, and garner suggestions from team members to address racism in the workplace.

  • Identifying microaggressions and speaking up. Have the courage to speak out against microaggressions when they occur, whether in the form of off-handed comments, questions, or jokes, as they do not further our collective commitment to eradicate racism. Instead, they perpetuate it.

Sometimes microaggressions are not addressed because of a lack of knowing what to say. Practice addressing someone who expressed a microaggression. To interrupt racist rhetoric, try something like, “That’s not funny.” Or “That could be hurtful.” Or “Could you repeat that?” Or, even better, “We’re an anti-racist environment and we don’t say things like that here.”

  • Learning how to respond to feedback from someone who feels impacted by a microaggression. When approached by someone with a concern, listen to the person’s concerns and try to understand the impact to them. Be careful not to dismiss it by saying no harm was meant or that it was a joke. Apologize but do not overfocus on a need for forgiveness – that makes it all about you and diminishes the impact on the other person. Take 100% responsibility for the other person’s experience and ask what can be done to make it right. Accept where they are and realize it may take time to work through a solution. Make a commitment to do better and pay attention to how your words impact others. Consider thanking the person for providing the feedback because it took courage to do so.

There is More Work to be Done!

The subtle and not-so-subtle impacts of racist microaggressions in our workplace have been in the background and happening without much notice. But they are now in the foreground, and each of us must actively work to identify where microaggressions are occurring in conversations we engage in. Take notice and then take a zero-tolerance stance on microaggressions.

Learning about microaggressions and refraining from participating in or allowing them to occur will elevate interactions and relationships at work. Identifying these microaggressions is one step of many to eliminate systemic racism in organizations, too. When we move forward and truly embrace and celebrate our differences, we will all be better for it.


About the Author

Sandra Wiley, President of Boomer Consulting, Inc., has been lauded for her industry expertise in human resources and training. She is often called the “go-to person” for solutions to the profession’s staffing crisis, citing her wise advice on hiring – and keeping – employees for the rest of their careers.