Laleh Moshiri is the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at Hicks Morley.

There are few organizations today that don’t ascribe to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Moving from legislative compliance to action, however, can be challenging. Many organizations focus on diversity, which is about representation but increasing representation does not in and of itself drive inclusion. Inclusion requires deliberate action.

Research from Catalyst shows that employees feel included when they are valued for their unique attributes and contributions and have a sense of belonging. Conversely, employees feel excluded when their uniqueness is ignored or dismissed and when they are made to feel like outsiders based on aspects of their identity (or role) within an organization. The cost of exclusion is high for both employer and employee – lower sense of well-being, lower job satisfaction, and reduced work effort, to name a few.

While inclusion is something we feel and is not always visible, exclusion can be heard or observed. Common exclusionary events experienced in the workplace are tokenism, bias and stereotyping. Bias and stereotyping frequently manifest in what Columbia University professor Dr. Derald Wing Sue has described as microaggressions – “everyday slights, insults, put-downs, invalidations and offensive behaviours that people of marginalized groups experience in daily interactions with generally well-intentioned people who may be unaware of their impact.”1

Even if the person committing the microaggression did not intend harm, this is irrelevant to the recipient who feels the sting of the impact. And while each individual action may seem small, the cumulative effect of these actions has been described as “death by a thousand cuts.” Speak to a member of any marginalized community and they will tell you about the number of times they experience microaggressions on a given day.

Consider these examples:

  • Is that your real hair? Can I touch it?
  • You’re so articulate
  • Does your husband make you wear a hijab?
  • I don’t think “they” should be used as a singular pronoun
  • You don’t look gay
  • I’m going to call you “fill in the blank” because I can’t say your name

The term microaggression itself has recently come into question. Micro, which means small, can imply triviality and does not take into account the cumulative impact of multiple slights. Aggression can be misleading as it implies intentionality, which is most often not present. Increasingly DEI experts are using the term “subtle acts of exclusion” which puts the focus on the impact of the action, not the intention. Regardless of what we call them, these actions, which are clearly painful for the recipient, are difficult to address in the workplace because they can be subtle, ambiguous and sometimes even disguised as compliments. The burden of addressing them should not fall solely on members of marginalized communities.


As leaders, allies and colleagues, each of us has a role to play in creating an inclusive workplace.2 We must educate ourselves about the day to day experience of members of marginalized communities. Membership in one marginalized community does not mean we understand the experiences of others.

What can individuals and organizations do?

As colleagues, if you witness a micro-aggression:


  • Consider responding in the moment, particularly if you are in a leadership role – you don’t want your silence to imply approval
  • Be direct
  • Challenge assumptions
  • Separate intent from impact
  • Ask questions: What did you mean by that, can you please repeat what you just said, what makes you say that?


  • Accuse them of racism, sexism, homophobia or other forms of discrimination – this results in defensiveness and shuts down opportunities for growth and learning
  • If someone comes to you to express concern about having been on the receiving end of a microaggression:


  • Listen
  • Ask what they would like to do about the situation and help determine how best to respond (ensuring agency always rests with the subject of the microaggression)


  • Tell them they are being over-sensitive or that they should take a joke
  • Tell them that the person committing the act did not intend to cause harm
  • Assume they should do what you would do in the same situation

As an organization:

Provide training on bias and microaggressions, as well a formal process for addressing them.

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