Have you ever found yourself in this situation?
A colleague says or does something racist at work. Perhaps someone makes a racist joke thinking they are being funny or a racist remark oblivious to its impact. Maybe some people, even everyone, nearby laughs or ignores it. Perhaps you’ve worked on a team where women of colour do significantly more ‘office housework’ and are offered less ‘glamour work’ compared with their colleagues. Maybe you’ve been invited to an event and notice that there is no diversity among panellists.
If you can recall a time when you overheard a comment or witnessed behaviour that marginalised, devalued, or demeaned an individual or a group of people, did you call it out?
Most people can describe a time when they witnessed inappropriate or offensive workplace behaviour, yet a much smaller number of those intervene or call it out. Often, people will say that they wanted to say something at the time or later regretted not saying anything, but in the moment they were shocked, confused, unsure of how to respond, or didn’t want to trigger a confrontation and so stayed silent.
Catherine “Kitty” Genovese was a 28-year-old woman who was brutally murdered outside of her Queens apartment in New York City on March 13, 1964. Genovese’s attack lasted around 30 minutes as she was stabbed 14 times by a man named Winston Moseley. It was initially reported that 38 bystanders turned their back on Genovese’s early morning cries for help, shutting their doors to silence her screams. Although that judgement was later proven to be inaccurate, there was evidence that of the many people who did hear Genovese’s cries for help, they did not act until it was too late.
Genovese’s murder led to a body of scientific research on ‘the bystander effect’. The bystander effect asserts individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present and the higher the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help.
As a short-form answer, people don’t step in to help others when there are others around because there are risks involved in coming to the help of others. So, to protect themselves, they stand back and let others take the fall. In the case of Kitty Genovese, there was a risk to physical security. But alongside physical safety and security needs, all humans share psychological needs—the maintenance of high self-esteem and connection with others. When we challenge others at work, we bear interpersonal risk—the possibility of being discredited, penalised, humiliated, dismissed or rejected. Our universal psychological safety needs motivate us to avoid situations that potentially result in confrontation, social exclusion or loss of status, or that may attract tangible penalties such as a financial punishment or reduced opportunities for career progression.
Calling out inappropriate conduct like racism or sexism is difficult because it is when interpersonal risks are the highest. You risk upsetting the transgressor and negatively impacting your relationship with them. Most people like to see themselves as fair and objective, and when someone suggests otherwise and accuses them of bias, especially if using polarising terms like ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’, the ego aggressively defends itself. You may be attacked with accusations of ‘political correctness’, or ‘being overly sensitive’ and there is a risk of damaging relationships. You could experience some sort of retaliation like a demotion, being passed over for an opportunity, or being excluded from or sidelined in meetings, formal decision-making, or social events.
Not surprisingly, psychologists have discovered that individuals are less likely to intervene to help others if the perpetrator is in the position of power—often a factor at play in workplace sexual harassment. If the transgressor is in a position of power, the risks of speaking up are higher. No one wants to fall out of favour with their boss, especially if there are non-effective formal grievance processes and when there is bias in the system so that relationships are more important for career security and progression than performance.
Individuals are also less likely to intervene to help others if the situation is ambiguous. This is often relevant for casually sexist and racist comments when you might be left asking—is that inappropriate comment? Is that offensive?
Researchers have also reported that individuals are less likely to intervene to help others if the behaviour is a cultural norm. For example, when banter, or in more extreme cases, sexual, racist, or homophobic jokes or harassment are commonplace in a work setting.
However, if you are a people leader, you have a legal responsibility to make sure no one feels psychologically unsafe at work. Also, studies show that you have more influence on behavioural change if you are in a position of power and even greater impact if you are not the target of the bias. For example, when a man confronts sexism, both men and women are curious to understand why he is helping gender equality efforts when there is no apparent direct benefit for him and he likely has benefited from the gender-biased mindsets and behaviours that he is challenging.
Leaders have to be courageous. When leaders don’t speak up, they signal to their workforce that the behaviour is acceptable, which gives the transgressor and others implied permission to repeat the behaviour. When a leader repeatedly lets inappropriate behaviours or comments pass unchecked, the behaviour is normalised and becomes part of the cultural fabric of the organisation.
Strategies for Calling Out Inappropriate Conduct at Work
- Be consciously courageous: When you understand that calling out inappropriate conduct at work involves interpersonal risk, that awareness can help you to step through the psychological barriers that are holding you back. When you don’t understand what is holding you back, it’s difficult to choose a different response. But when you are consciously aware that there is a risk attached with speaking up, you can choose to accept that risk, and you can respond in a way that aligns with your expressed intentions.
- Recognise your responsibility to act: If you are in a position of power, you have a responsibility, including a legal one, to address offensive comments and problematic behaviour. Also, recognise that it shouldn’t be the job of women and racial or ethnic minorities to educate others about their blind spots. Educate yourself and then educate others.
- Have a plan: People often say that the reason they didn’t respond to an inappropriate comment or behaviour was that they were caught off-guard or shocked. It is useful to have a plan for how you will respond. What will you say or do in the moment or what will you say or do privately. Having a plan prepares you for acting when needed. Your plan might vary depending on the gravity of the behaviour, the personalities involved, the context, whether it’s a one-off occurrence or repeated behaviour. Formulating a few different options can be useful. As part of your plan, anticipate what response you might receive and prepare your counter-response. What will you say, for example, if the offender replies that you are ‘overly sensitive’, ‘too politically correct’, ‘can’t take a joke’, or that ‘X doesn’t care’?
- Consider the costs and benefits of a public or private call-out: Some people feel more comfortable calling out inappropriate behaviour in private rather than publicly. For others, the choice might depend on the personality or rank of the transgressor and the context. The advantage of calling out people in public is that it sends a strong message to others that you don’t accept that behaviour. You can achieve the same result with a private call out by coaching the transgressor to make a public apology. Alternatively, at a later date in a public forum, you can describe the behaviour that occurred and make it clear that that behaviour is inappropriate and that individuals have been held to account. The benefits of calling out in private are that you are less likely to get an aggressive reaction. Also, when people feel attacked or embarrassed their fight or flight system is activated, and they are less open to your feedback and less likely to learn from your comments and change their behaviours.
- Remember that bias is universal: Don’t make strong and personal accusations about a person’s character. Assume the transgressor didn’t mean to offend. Most of the time, the person doesn’t know how their behaviour is being interpreted. Research shows that accusations, such as “that’s racist,” result in much more defensive reactions. Start from a place that most people are well-intentioned, but that they haven’t been educated in issues concerning bias, privilege, and power and haven’t been taught how to treat others inclusively. For example, you might begin with, “I don’t think you realise how that came across…” or “I know you wouldn’t have meant to offend..”
- Ask a question: For an individual to take on board your comments, they must not feel that they are being reprimanded. (There are times when a reprimand is necessary, but here we are talking about unconscious biases and conduct that is not intended to offend). Encourage a two-way conversation and invite dialogue. Asking a question (e.g. I’m not sure I understand? Can you share an example? Why is that funny?) can help others to think about why they acted or said what they did. Through self-reflection, they come to see their biases for themselves.
- Use the teachable moment to educate and encourage dialogue: Use the opportunity to educate. Transfer your learnings about bias and privilege. Take the time, for example, to explain why All Lives Matter undermines the message, Black Lives Matter, before cutting someone down.
- Reference group norms: People often mistakenly believe that those around them endorse their behaviour even though privately others might disagree. The false-consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which others share their beliefs, values, characteristics, and behaviours. You can disrupt this bias by referencing group norms. For example, “That’s not how we do things here” or “I don’t think we agree with you”. One technique that works well is to sit down with your team and agree with them what behaviours are ‘above’ and what are ‘below the line’. You don’t mean specifying comments that are off-limits, but you could agree, for example, that behaviours that make people feel included, valued, safe and respected are above the line and behaviours that exclude or undermine, devalue or make people feel unsafe are below the line. As a team, you can agree to call each other out using the phrase ‘we are drifting below the line, let’s bring it back above the line’.
- Be the change you want to see: Encourage a new culture by deliberately engaging in and championing inclusive behaviours and refrain from problematic ones, even if they are the established norm, such as workplace banter. Be an active ally for underrepresented and marginalised groups. When leaders formally acknowledge and celebrate aspects of an individual’s identity, it sends a strong message to employees that their differences are valued and respected. Examples include acknowledging and celebrating days of religious significance, and participating in community-sponsored events such as Wear It Purple Day in support of LGBTI+ awareness especially for young people, or NAIDOC week, celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Sponsor an employee resource group. Sit on the diversity council. Frequently communicate your support of and commitment to D&I—talk about diversity at every team meeting. Take the panel pledge—commit to speaking only at events where there is a diverse representation of speakers.
Footnote: Being an effective upstander is a focus skill in our inclusive leadership and unconscious bias workshops. Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org for further detail.