February 1, 2022

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter that centers conversations about gender in media. Subscribe here to join the community.

In the last issue of The Cohort, Phoebe Gavin shared her best tips for navigating how and when to speak up about a microaggression in the workplace. She recommended approaching your colleague with your concerns like a conversation, rather than an accusation.

But what if you’re the colleague on the other end of the conversation being confronted, or the manager of someone who made their colleague uncomfortable?

If you work with colleagues from a diverse range of backgrounds and people feel comfortable speaking up when things don’t feel right, that’s a great sign for your organization’s aptitude for change. And even though being “called in” is ultimately an act of care for all parties involved (including you), it can still feel uncomfortable. If your colleague has taken the care to thoughtfully approach you about your behavior or comment, how do you respond gracefully and productively?

Emma Carew Grovum is the founder of Kimbap Media where she helps newsroom leaders create more equitable and inclusive workplaces. Here’s what she had to say:

Pretend you’re recycling. You do your best to recycle every day. Some things are easy: The aluminum cans go in, the food scraps don’t. But there are all kinds of tricky things, like glass bottles and pizza boxes. “If you make a mistake and someone calls you out on that mistake, you’re just going to say, ‘Oops, thanks for letting me know,’” Carew Grovum said. A call-in doesn’t need to be a judgment on your character, and you don’t need to dwell on a mistake forever or fall over yourself apologizing a million times. You will make mistakes, and that’s OK as long as you listen and evolve your behavior when your colleagues speak up. Every day is a new opportunity to put the pizza box in the right place.

Pay attention to where you lend your empathy. This one is for the leaders. If a direct report comes to you with a concern about something someone else has said or done, your first instinct might be to assume the best intentions of the person in question. “That is putting the empathy and the sympathy on to the oppressor in that situation,” Carew Grovum said. “What we want to do is create empathy and sympathy for the person who has experienced a microaggression.” Your judgment is important when deciding how to approach a direct report about something they’ve said, but it’s helpful to remember to question where your empathy immediately goes in a situation, especially if the person raising the concern comes from a different background from you.

Remember that your inputs influence your outputs. Building an inclusive and equitable workplace means investing in the culture of your workplace, not just putting out interpersonal fires when they arise. “What are you doing to work on yourself in this manner?” Carew Grovum said. Consider taking an audit of the types of books you read, the podcasts you listen to, the newsletters you subscribe to, and the people you follow on Twitter. Whose perspectives are you missing? How can you get a fuller picture?

If you’re a bystander and you notice something in a meeting, reach out to the person first. No one wants to be White (or insert-your-privilege-here) Savior Miranda. If it’s your first time noticing a microaggression or you haven’t spoken up as a bystander before, “back-channeling is my number one tip,” Carew Grovum said. Send your colleague a quick text (maybe not on the company Slack, though!) to check in on them, and ask how you can help. Once you know how they’d like you to proceed, you’ll know what to do the next time it happens. “Being a good ally comes down to recognizing your privilege. And being willing to spend it on somebody else’s behalf,” Carew Grovum said.

Remember that you are a human and so is your colleague. Ultimately, you’re not striving to be a Perfect Ally (whatever that means)—you’re striving to create an environment where everyone you work with can show up fully as themselves. You can’t follow a formula to create genuine, caring relationships with the people in your life!

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Alex Sujong Laughlin is the writer and editor of Poynter's The Cohort, a newsletter about gender in media. She's a writer and an award-winning audio…
Alex Sujong Laughlin

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