Keeping microaggressions out of your workplace

Education and reflection are the keys to an inclusive organization.
By Megan Hart

While at a past job, Rumbi Bwerinofa-Petrozzello, CPA/CFF, worked on a team with one other Black woman. They looked nothing alike, but that didn't stop her colleagues from getting them confused, said Bwerinofa-Petrozzello, principal at Rock Forensics LLC in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"I'd have people come up to me and ask me about something she was supposed to be working on," she said.

That's just one example of a microaggression in the workplace. No one enjoys being confused for someone else, especially if they are the only two members of a minority group in the room. It insinuates that colleagues don't want to take the time to learn their names.

Recognizing microaggressions

Microaggressions "are everyday experiences people have that serve to invalidate their racial realities," said Helen A. Neville, Ph.D., a professor of educational psychology and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "These can be intentional or unintentional, and they reflect the myth of white supremacy in our society."

The term "microaggression" was originally coined by Chester M. Pierce, a Black psychiatrist, in the 1970s, Neville said. The term has evolved and gained popularity through the work of Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University psychology professor. Though the prefix might imply they're insignificant, microaggressions are anything but.

Some microaggressions people experience at work include:

  • Members of minority groups being told they speak English well, asked where they're really from, or treated in other ways that imply they're not from the United States.
  • Comments or jokes about a person's religious or cultural attire, regardless of whether they're in the room.
  • Actions based on stereotypes, like asking an Asian person to help with a math problem, clutching your purse if a Black person steps into the elevator, or assuming your gay male co-worker needs help understanding sports metaphors used in the business world, like "calling an audible" or "full-court press."
  • Assumptions based on race and gender roles, like asking a woman to perform an administrative task regardless of her job title or guessing the white man in a meeting, not the person of color, is the project leader.

It's important that everyone in a workplace understands what microaggressions are if there's any hope for eliminating them, and it seems now people are paying closer attention. Recent events have sparked a national reckoning on race, and Bwerinofa-Petrozzello, president-elect of the New York State Society of CPAs, said the topic of microaggressions has come up in more discussions.

In a professional setting, microaggressions can hinder the growth or retention of employees, Bwerinofa-Petrozzello said, comparing them to death by a thousand cuts. Microaggressions can also drive away clients.

Though there are no easy fixes, here are four steps firms and individuals can take to make sure microaggressions are not part of their organization.

Start with a self-evaluation. When it comes to microaggressions, intent is irrelevant, Bwerinofa-Petrozzello said. The same can be said for aspiring allies: Meaning well isn't enough.

Individuals, especially those in leadership roles, should begin by looking in the mirror, said Alex Santos Murry, who worked as a corporate diversity strategist at New York Public Radio.

It's important for leaders to understand how they've benefited from institutional oppression, she said.

For example, in 2016, the net worth of a typical white family ($171,000) was nearly ten times that of a typical Black family ($17,150), according to a Brookings Institute report.  This disparity is caused by centuries of discrimination and has led to white Americans generally having more access to resources like secure housing, education, and health care — all of which facilitate professional success.

Understanding these institutional factors can make leaders more conscientious of how certain comments or actions could affect employees from different backgrounds. It's especially critical for ending common microaggressions based on the myth of meritocracy, like those that imply a person of color was hired to meet a quota.

Interpersonal interactions often become the focus of discussions on microaggressions, but these everyday verbal and nonverbal slights are a symptom of a bigger problem, Neville said. Unfortunately, there's no magic wand firms can use to stop microaggressions. Instead, it's about changing the workplace culture.

Neville recommends that firms begin to address microaggressions and inequities in the workplace by assessing where they stand. It might be beneficial to bring in a third party to look at metrics like pay equity, board composition, and diversity among those in decision-making roles, she said.

Companies should also consider whether they have policies in place that keep certain groups out or prevent some individuals from advancing, Neville said.

Make an investment. In 2018, Botham Jean, a 26-year-old Black man and PwC accountant, was killed by a white off-duty police officer after she entered his apartment. Amber Guyger, the former officer, was convicted of murder in 2019 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The tragedy affected PwC employees, from Jean's colleagues in Dallas to CEO Tim Ryan. Ryan has been outspoken about the importance of diversity and inclusion. He created a diversity and inclusion pledge that's been signed by more than 1,400 CEOs overseeing about 13 million employees. CEOs who sign the pledge commit to providing employees with unconscious bias education and forums for discussing diversity and inclusion topics.

But to create a company culture that addresses microaggressions and other forms of racism, the commitment to inclusion has to go beyond the CEO, especially at a large firm like PwC, which brings in about 13,000 employees a year, said Chicago-based Sheri Wyatt, CPA, PwC's Assurance Diversity Leader.

Wyatt recommends firms tie their diversity and inclusion strategies, which should include training that addresses microaggressions in the workplace, directly to their purpose and value statements. PwC's purpose is "to build trust in society and solve important problems." That starts with its employees, she said.

"We want an organization that is inclusive and creates opportunities for all our people to grow and develop," she said.

For example, PwC's data suggested that for women, Black, and Latino employees, the first two years at the firm are critical to their future. So, the firm developed a required two-year onboarding program for those individuals, launched this year, that focuses on ensuring they have equitable opportunities and feel a sense of belonging at PwC.

Building a more diverse workforce helps address microaggressions by making it more difficult for the majority to sideline certain groups and signaling to employees that diverse opinions and insights should be valued.

Moving forward, Murry believes companies will need to make real investments in diversity and inclusion if they want to succeed.

"They should be prioritizing it with as much as value as making sure you reach certain key performance indicators or profit margins," she said.

That could include bringing in a qualified diversity and inclusion officer who is a member of the C-suite and paid an equitable salary, she said.

Listen and take meaningful action. Reports of microaggressions are often met with suggestions of misunderstanding, which can feel like piling onto the problem, Bwerinofa-Petrozzello said. Instead, supervisors need to listen to their employees, she said.

Jioni Lewis, a psychology professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, is an expert on intersectionality, or the theory that different identities, including race, gender, and sexuality, overlap. Her work shows people can experience microaggressions differently, which further underlines the importance of listening to individuals.

Microaggressions should always be addressed, even if the intent wasn't malicious, Bwerinofa-Petrozzello said. Sometimes, simply pointing out the offense to an unknowing colleague is enough, but if the act is egregious or the culprit regularly commits microaggressions, human resources or management should get involved.

And the onus shouldn't always fall on the victims. Bystanders should be willing to stand up for their colleagues if they hear or see a microaggression being committed.

Create safe spaces. At PwC, Jean's murder sparked candid conversations about police brutality that have carried on, Wyatt said. PwC even created a firmwide "Day of Understanding" to facilitate discussions on race. Part of that program is PwC's "Mind the Gap" podcast series, in which small groups of employees have discussions about topics such as race, gender, and religion that used to be taboo in the workplace, she said. The podcasts are only shared internally so participants can feel comfortable being honest.

Murry believes there are benefits to making it clear that diversity training should be viewed as an opportunity for people to learn, not simply an obligation required by HR. Education can be a powerful tool for addressing microaggressions.

"It's about understanding the systems that you're triggering with that one act that you're doing," she said.

Supervisors and firms should encourage employees to first try to have candid and courageous conversations to appropriately respond to experiences with microaggressions, but if that doesn't work, employers can help mitigate the trauma of microaggressions by creating a safe environment for employees to report concerns. PwC's Ethics & Business Conduct team investigates any claims immediately.

Being aware of microaggressions, and working to eliminate them, can make accounting firms more inclusive places for their employees, as well as their clients.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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