Keeping microaggressions out of your workplace

January 12, 2021

By Megan Hart, CPA Insider

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.

Continue reading
View all News