How to have the talk: calling out inappropriate behaviour in the workplace

So, you have a colleague, close friend or a co-worker who occasionally uses offensive, sexist, racist or inappropriate language. How do you break it to this person that perhaps they should reconsider the impact of their words or actions? Is it possible to do this without putting them on the defensive?

Many of us have made poor language choices or acted in ways that didn’t live up to our best selves. Sometimes, we are able to see the impact of these choices but in other instances, we may not even know that we’ve offended, hurt or angered someone.

Recently, a good friend asked for some tips and advice on how to give this feedback. In our work, we often support and build the capacity of men to intervene when they see or hear incidents of everyday sexism. It’s a tough thing to do to use your own social capital — but how will your friend/colleague feel if you don’t tell them?

Here’s some handy advice on you can have this conversation:

  1. Support the Complainant: if you can, let the person who was the target of the actions know that you saw what happened and that you also felt that this was inappropriate. Letting this person know that they are not alone in experiencing this is a huge step.
  2. Avoid the blame game: begin by acknowledging that any one of us can act or make statements that can be interpreted as offensive. Your intention as you bring this issue up is to help the person learn from their actions, and to help them avoid repeating the behaviour.
  3. Step into someone else’s shoes: ask the person if they’ve thought about how they would feel if a similar assumption, comment or action happened to them. Ask them to consider the impact of their actions and how they could be received.
  4. Give them new vocabulary: suggest other ways to providing similar feedback that are more positive, focusing on the behaviour and not the person.
  5. Create accountability: let the person know that you are happy to remind them if they make further missteps and are open to giving feedback and support. Let them know that if it happens again, that you are also willing to report this so that additional preventative measures can be taken.

It’s a tough thing to do to call someone out on their behaviour, but, if no one points out our flaws — how will any of us ever learn?

Have you tried to have this talk with a colleague or friend? How did it go for you? We’d love to hear how these tough talks went for you.