Being ready to call things out

Helen Dallimore




Allyship is hard work. It takes a deft touch and a thoughtful and empathetic ally to create lasting and meaningful change. Excellent allies have the courage to get comfortable doing the uncomfortable work of disrupting the status quo.

I recently saw this Harvard Business Review article which explores the potentially uncomfortable but important task of public allyship and calling out inappropriate sexist behaviour. Whilst I don’t agree with all of the authors’ comments and suggestions, it is worth a read if only to consider how calling out any form of problematic behaviour could realistically sound for you.   

In many of the byrne·dean sessions I facilitate, we talk about how we are all responsible for creating the environments that we want to work in. The idea of tone from the top is long established but it is not just leaders that need to drive this. We all need to play our part if we are going to drive cultural change and the FCA are now flagging the importance of tone from within too. Psychological safety, where everyone feels able to speak up and share their concerns without fear of negative consequences is the aim. If people can bring their best selves to work they are happier, more productive and risks are also reduced.  

Finding the right words at the right time to call things out is tough though, particularly if we are under pressure and feeling exposed. All too often, we can feel like a rabbit in the headlights and the moment when we could speak up seems to pass by in a flash. We must have all walked away from a situation kicking ourselves and knowing exactly what we should have said? It’s natural as our brains don’t function well when we are panicking. Taking time to think about what calling out could actually sound like on a Tuesday, as we say at byrne·dean, can really help you to reach out to some choice words in these emergency moments.  

So, what could you say? Reading this article re-confirmed to me how this is not straightforward. What works for you may not be what works for me. There is not a one size fits all option, it needs to feel natural to you. The article suggests buying yourself a few extra seconds to think by having a statement such as “Ouch” followed by a cued up response such as “Did you really mean to say that”; “We don’t do that here”; “That was not funny”; or “That’s an outdated stereotype”. Personally I am not sure that “ouch” is strong enough or very natural but I do agree with having a simple marker in the sand. What you say needs to do the job but it doesn’t need to be complicated or a fully formed speech. Personally, I am also not keen on the authors' suggestion of shouting “penalty” if people frequently interrupt someone else. Whilst humour can sometimes be a good distraction it needs to be used carefully to not be belittling or make the whole thing feel like a joke. 

Participants in sessions have shared some great suggestions for how it can sound to them such as “well I don’t know about that…” or, just simply, “I don’t agree with that”. They have also shared that tone and facial expressions can be critical to make sure everyone knows where you stand and that you are clearly putting up a red light to behaviour. In one session a participant with a military background shared the memorable phrase that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. Having a short, rehearsed phrase to deploy in moments can help you set the boundaries and drive cultural change. Thinking about it before you are that rabbit in the headlights and it is too late can really help. If the moment passes or you didn’t say enough, you can always follow up 1:1 with those who were there or look at having some team learning to make sure expectations are clear. If you really don’t know what to do, speak to someone and get some advice.  

The reality is we all need to do more when we see any form of inappropriate or disrespectful behaviour and doing nothing should not be an option. #Metoo and BLM have highlighted how the inactive bystander is not a neutral or comfortable place to be. 

Nobody said it was easy but the more you practice calling things out the more natural it can feel for you and everyone else. The important thing is to say something because if you don’t, who will?