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Overcoming Microaggressions in the Workplace

By Donald Thompson

Posted @ Mar 19, 2021

When organizations think about DEI, they often focus on the macro of how systemic societal issues infiltrate their organization. But in order to move the needle, we also need to address the micro. This includes microaggressions, which are rarely considered in the workplace. Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs or insults (whether intentional or unintentional) which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to people who are often marginalized. 

These often subtle messages diminish an individual’s lived experience, but they’re surprisingly common. Microaggressions typically occur during person-to-person interactions, and they can negatively impact the self-esteem, job satisfaction, productivity and mental health of employees who are most often marginalized. So, how do we navigate microaggressions at work, and what can we learn from them in the process? 

A few weeks ago, I joined the Triangle American Marketing Association for a panel discussion about Overcoming Microaggressions in the Workplace. I found the conversation thought-provoking, so I wanted to pass along some of what was discussed. When preparing for this topic, I started by thinking about my own experience with microaggressions. One that I most often hear is, “You speak so well,” as if I lack the ability to go to school, expand upon my command of the English language along with other students, and then effectively communicate. As a Black man, it can be difficult to enter a conference room and have someone stop to ask me, “Can you help me move these chairs?” or assume I am part of the catering staff when I am the keynote speaker.

With this in mind, I want to offer my best advice for dealing with microaggressions. I like to use the opportunity to flip the script and educate a bit. Personally, I’ve gotten to a point in my career and in life where I don’t take things negatively unless they are intentionally meant to offend me. That has to do with tone, not words. If the tone is open but the phrase is damaging, I take that as an opportunity to educate people in that moment. 

So, what can you do to prevent microaggressions? The first step is to slow down and consider your words. After all, I’m still not where I need to be. It is an intentional practice to use more inclusive language. Out of habit, I used to open up meetings saying “It’s good to see you guys!” — even when I didn’t know the audience. By saying that, by calling everyone “guys,” I was immediately excluding so many people in the room. I am now using more inclusive terms, like “everyone” and “team” instead. 

When you talk in these terms, when you start using words like everyone vs. you guys or person who uses a wheelchair rather than handicapped person, you are training yourself to be more intentional and thoughtful in your daily communication. You see it in yourself and others, and you start to change your workplace through language. Thinking about the language you use in your everyday life helps your colleagues feel welcome, valued, and understood which results in increased work ethic, job satisfaction and employee retention.  

When we want to create belonging with language, we have to self-regulate and pause to examine the words we’re using and what they mean. As a CEO in both marketing and diversity, I learn more about inclusive language every day. It takes practice, but now, I hear myself when I make mistakes. I’m not perfect or right all the time, but I have an opportunity to self-check now, because I’m looking for it.

Sometimes, the way we come across is not the way we intended, and we need an opportunity to self-correct. One good way to point out a microaggression is to call someone in with a microinterruption. A microinterruption lets you pause and note biased or discriminatory behavior and language, whether it’s someone else’s or even your own. The goal of a microinterruption is to draw attention to the non-inclusive action or statement, address it quickly, then move on. I have always appreciated when people have done that for me as a leader, and other people with a growth-mindset appreciate it too. That’s the key for dealing with microaggressions. Assume good intent, and give the person a fighting chance to do better.



Donald Thompson is a serial entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, and executive coach, recently named one of Forbes’ Next 1000: The Upstart Entrepreneurs Redefining the American Dream. He is currently the CEO of Walk West, an award winning digital marketing firm, and co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a technology-driven diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy. He is also a board member for several organizations in healthcare, technology, marketing, sports and entertainment, a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and a thought leader on goal achievement and influencing company culture. Connect with Donald through LinkedIn or at donaldthompson.com.

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