Subtle acts of exclusion can make work a difficult place for BIPOC. Here’s how to help change that.

My Chinese name is Men-Jyung Hu.

During my first year of graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, my professors and classmates rarely called me by my name. I soon discovered most people were uncomfortable saying my name and didn’t bother to learn how to pronounce it. I was addressed as “Hey” or nothing at all.

As a result, I was not included in study groups or classroom discussions. I felt invisible, excluded, and marginalized, like an outsider.

My story is an example of the effects of microaggressions — subtle acts of exclusion that demean, belittle, and reinforce an insider/outsider dynamic. I already felt like an outsider as a Taiwanese student in an American school. My classmates and professors made the dynamic an emotional as much as a physical one, cutting me off from access to the group.

Workers who are BIPOC — black, indigenous, and people of color — are likely to experience microaggressions.

“Just being BIPOC, showing up is incredibly stressful,” explains Tiffany Jana, author of Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify and Stop Microaggressions. “In so many ways people are directing bias toward you, often unintentionally.”

This harms not only workers but companies as well. Research by McKinsey found when people don’t feel respected and included at work, they decreased their time spent there (47 percent), admitted their performance declined (66 percent), and were less committed to the organization (78 percent).

As a leader, what can you do to help mitigate the harmful effects of microaggressions?

The AAA model (awareness, acquire, and adapt) that I detail in my book, Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust, serves as a roadmap, helping all parties save face when microaggressions happen.


Microaggressions may be perceived as harmless by the person who commits them. A comment about a black worker’s hairstyle or an Asian colleague’s accent, or an assumption that a Latinx worker can easily translate something into Spanish — these may seem minor in scope, but their negative effects compound over time.

For this first step, reflect on your culture and values and how they shape your assumptions, thoughts, and behaviors. Be aware of your biases, knowing many are unconscious. Accept your actions have impact, even if your intent was not to do harm.

“When a person engages in subtle acts of exclusion, they tend to immediately default to their intent — ‘That’s not my intention’ — without considering the impact,” Jana says. “The initiator of the subtle act of exclusion must be willing to have some humility to believe BIPOC are suffering from the experience. Acknowledge that ‘I caused harm, even if I didn’t mean to.'”


Seek the understanding needed to make a change. Withhold judgment and cultivate a learning mindset. Accept the reality of BIPOC colleagues’ experiences — even if what they say is difficult to hear.

Empathy is crucial.

“Display empathy to acknowledge they are hurt. The psychological cut has the same impact on the brain as a physical cut,” Jana says.


Finally, adapt to new behaviors. Embrace being an ally — someone who acts courageously to support others.

Do you notice some team members tend to interrupt their BIPOC colleagues? Act as a “bias interrupter” and speak up. “Tim, I think Jane was trying to make a point. I would love to hear her thoughts.”

We often miss microaggressions in the moment. Our fight-or-flight reactions make us too stunned to act, or we don’t realize what happened until we later reflect and process. Being an ally means checking in after the fact, validating the experience, and offering support.

Help others adapt to their behaviors. Have a conversation with the person who initiated the microaggression. Establish a culture that acknowledges that though we all make mistakes, we are accountable to learn from them.

“Don’t call people out, call them in,” Jana says. “Educate the initiator so they won’t keep doing it. Help them see the impact.”

The least helpful action is none at all. When it comes to racism and acts of exclusion, inaction can be interpreted as endorsement

After my first year in grad school, I decided to get a new name.

I asked a classmate for help. He suggested Maya — short, easy to say, and easy to remember. After adopting the new name, people started to acknowledge my existence and engage with me.

I am glad I adopted the name Maya, which means “Life is a dream.” However, I still keep Men-Jyung as my middle name. I appreciate it when people learn my Chinese name and honor my heritage.

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