Written by: Sophie Warwick.
You’re sitting in a work meeting and witness a negative or minimizing comment directed at a colleague. Tension fills the room. It may not have been said maliciously, but words can be harmful even when we’re not intending for them to. But how do you speak up and be an ally?
Many of us believe ourselves to be active and engaged allies. We’re aligned with empowering individuals from underrepresented and minority groups. So why is it so hard to speak out? There are a variety of reasons that make it challenging to respond in the moment. It may be that we don’t know the person well and aren’t sure how to support their unique needs. It might be that the person who made the comment is a senior leader and there is a power imbalance. Or we may be new to the team and are unsure of the social and political dynamics at play.
It is normal to have these feelings. But by being engaged allies, we can build more productive and inclusive workplaces that improve all employees’ experiences. In this article I’ll walk through an example on how to thoughtfully respond to an exclusionary behaviour at work that recognizes the diversity of individual experience while establishing a positive and solution-oriented path forward.
Let’s consider the example that you’ve just joined a meeting and the only woman in the room, referred to as “Sara”, has been asked to grab coffees for everyone by a “Senior Leader.” Sara is also a senior leader and is not working in an administrative role.
Don’t assume how Sara needs to be supported. Is she someone you know well and have discussed her experiences of belonging in the workplace before? If not, you may not be sure how Sara would like the situation addressed. I personally prefer to have the comment addressed real-time in the meeting. However, I’ve worked with many women, and individuals of other identities, who prefer to have the conversation after the meeting so it can be addressed separately from their work. Alternatively, some individuals may want to be left out of that conversation entirely and feel it isn’t their duty to coach others. They may prefer their team have that discussion on their behalf.
Everyone has diverse needs in how they want to be supported, and the support needed will likely vary on the severity of the situation. Ask questions to learn how you can support each individual most effectively. If you’re not sure how Sara would like to be supported, I’d recommend starting with a private conversation after the meeting this time so you can respect her ownership of the situation.
Suggest solutions that you believe would be helpful. We want to balance being respectful to understand how Sara experienced this situation, but also acknowledge it is not her responsibility to educate her team. It’s critical to do your homework before. In this example, it could mean suggesting that Sara, the Senior Leader, and yourself schedule a private conversation to discuss how that impacted her in the meeting. It could mean broader communication with the company to educate the team on the impacts of microaggressions. Or it could mean scheduling implicit bias training for all employees to build awareness. Take the time to consider these solutions beforehand and come prepared to your initial discussion.
The ownership is often assigned to individuals from minority and underrepresented groups to educate their team on how they can build more inclusive workplaces. While it is imperative to ensure they are empowered to share their perspective, it is not their responsibility to educate. Read articles and books, or listen to podcasts and radio shows, from diverse voices, so you can enter all conversations with an open mind and the background education to suggest possible solutions.
Respect the individual’s right to decide on the right course of action. Bring solutions and knowledge with you to the conversation, but respect Sara’s right to make the final decision on how to move forward. One of the challenges of being a member of a minority or underrepresented group at work is that we can lose the freedom to be our true selves. We don’t want to further diminish that freedom by controlling the course of action to their own experience. Present your solutions to Sara and clarify that you will support her however she wants to proceed (even if it’s not one of your suggestions!).
Make a plan to respond to this experience. Leave the initial discussion with Sara with a plan on how to respond to this situation. If she wanted to have a private meeting with herself, the Senior Leader, and you, then offer to facilitate by scheduling the meeting, find helpful articles to share, or lead the discussion if that’s her preference. Being an active ally includes taking actions to empower others. Be sure that all responsibility isn’t falling on Sara and find opportunities to share some of those efforts with her.
Your plan should include a way to respond if it happens again. Now that you’ve had the opportunity to have this important discussion with Sara, ask how she would like you to address it in the future should something similar happen again. If it happens again, you can now feel confident responding in the moment.
Remember there doesn’t need to be a microaggression to have the initial conversation. Consider discussing scenarios with your team when you meet next and ask how they would prefer to be supported. Ideally you won’t need to act on them, but if you do, you’ve now had the important discussions to enable you to be an active and engaged ally for them when needed.
We provide workshops on high impact topics that coach teams on building more inclusive workplaces for women. From Advocating for Yourself at Work, to Active Allyship: Paving the Way to Inclusivity, we offer a variety of workshops that leave your team with concise and actionable items they can use to make positive change. If you would like to learn how we help employers retain women and other top talent, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We advise companies on retention, policy and governance, informed by research. We help employers implement practices that retain and engage women over the long-term and set up governance structures to support these practices. Our goal is to create structures that allow women to thrive over their full career.