your next move

‘My Boss Calls Me ‘Sis’ And I Want Him to Stop’

A black businesswoman sits with her hands folded in front of her and her head tilted back. Her eyes are closed and she appears deep in thought.
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Hello Kimberly,

Interactions with my boss are really uncomfortable lately.

When I first started working for the company about two years ago, there was a new diversity, equity, and inclusion “campaign” to help create a bigger sense of belonging at the company. In my department, I’m the only woman of color in 99 percent of the meetings that are happening, so I wasn’t surprised that the company was rolling out new training.

I’ve experienced all of the microaggressions that Black women joke about happening in the workplace around my hair, which doesn’t necessarily bother me. But now my boss is starting to take it too far. In the past few months, he’s started using terms like “sis” or “girl” in a way that I know he thinks is friendly but is truly not. I feel like one day he watched a Tyler Perry movie and decided that this is how Black people speak to each other and he should try it out for himself.

For context, he’s a 49-year-old, white, straight male.

How can I address this change in language with him in the workplace? I really don’t want to bring in human resources and make it a “thing” because I think it’s simply ignorance on his part. I just want it to stop.

Yikes! I cringed as I read this letter because I can only imagine how uncomfortable this must feel to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

As defined by Columbia psychology professor Derald Wing Sue, racial microaggressions are the slights, insults, put-downs, invalidations, and offensive behaviors that people of color may experience in daily interactions, often with well-intentioned people. The key here is that your manager may be unaware that what they are saying is harmful or offensive. It may sound crazy, but it’s possible he felt this was the best way to relate to you and make you feel more welcome on the team.

Addressing microaggressions in the workplace can be extremely challenging, especially when it’s with your direct manager. But it’s crucial that you do address them so you can be comfortable in your day-to-day job and contribute to a more inclusive environment. If you feel okay doing so, I recommend scheduling time to chat with your manager outside your normal one-on-one cadence of meetings about your workload. Explicitly call out the language he uses that you find offensive, and state that you’d appreciate being referred to only by your name moving forward. You can also use this time to share why this language is offensive to you, but you do not have to provide a long explanation for why you would like him to refrain from calling you “sis” or “girl.”

During this conversation, I recommend sharing a few specific examples of when your manager offended you and the exact language he used. When I entered the workforce, my father advised me to document poor behavior in case I needed to address it at a later date. Just in case your manager’s response is unfavorable, it’s important that you have a record of the facts of the situation.

As with any tough conversation in the workplace, it’s important that you remain calm and measured in your tone and body language. As much as this feels like (and may be!) a personal attack, it’s crucial that you use language that drives home the behavior that needs to change and not focus on your manager’s overall character. Keep in mind that your manager may have questions or want to clarify why he was using this language. This doesn’t change the fact that the language is harmful to you, but hearing him out could provide deeper insights and provide a sense of catharsis for both of you.

I also recommend initiating this meeting toward the end of the day, if possible, so that you and your manager have an evening to think about the conversation outside the office rather than having to resume work immediately. In a perfect world, the use of microaggressions would stop immediately and this would be a teachable moment for your manager. But you won’t truly know the impact or repercussions until after the conversation is over. Unfortunately, this is the kind of conversation in which you’ll have no idea how your manager will react or if they will retaliate. Most companies have an anti-retaliation rule, but we all know that doesn’t prevent someone from making your day-to-day work miserable.

If you’re not comfortable addressing the situation one on one without assistance, it may be time to reach out to a trusted colleague, mentor, or HR representative to help facilitate the conversation as a mediator. If you want to ensure that this conversation isn’t documented for you or your manager, however, I recommend seeking the advice of a more senior-level mentor who is familiar with both of you.

Last but not least, be sure that you’re taking care of yourself. Experiencing microaggressions from your direct manager on a daily basis can be both emotionally and mentally draining. Don’t be afraid to seek out a mental-health professional to support you, if needed. Your company may even have confidential resources as part of an employee-assistance program that can help you process and heal from this ordeal.

Career and leadership-development expert Kimberly Brown helps readers make sure their next move is the best move, here, every other Wednesday. Have a question for her? Email (and read our submission terms here.) Listen to the Your Next Move podcast here.

‘My Boss Calls Me ‘Sis’ And I Want Him To Stop’