A lot of people are talking about how Amy Cooper is a jerk. 

I had to check myself the other day on this very point. Why? Because I simply stopped with that one thought. Amy Cooper is a jerk. 

OK, that’s not entirely true, I went one step further. Amy Cooper is a jerk AND, I’m not like that. I would never do THAT.

The problem with that? I didn’t ask myself what I would do if I saw it happening. Did you? Did you come up with a plan? 

This post isn’t really about Amy Cooper. It’s about the more sinister, subtle asshole behaviors that infiltrate our day-to-day work conversations, and the way that many of us respond…

…or DON’T respond at all. Instead we sit there in shock, and apologize to the victims later, telling them how shocked we are at what we saw and heard. But in the moment, we allow people to get away with inappropriate, sometimes degrading behavior that hurts others. And then we move on, because it would be weird to revisit it later, and we don’t want to rock the boat.

There’s a lot of talk right now about allyship. There are a lot of people — white people in particular — who want to be better allies to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), LGBTQ+ folks (June is pride month!), people with disabilities, women, and more. 

And yet, every day we see inappropriate behavior in the workplace and the world and we don’t do anything. 

It is loooong past time to change that. We must be committed and active bystanders to our colleagues and friends. It’s time to have a plan for what to do when you see something that’s wrong in the workplace.

Why We’re Bad at Bystanding

I first became painfully aware of bystander inaction when I was 23. I was at a work party, chatting with several people — including the Vice President of HR, let’s call her Anne — when a drunk VP put his hand on my backside (the right side, specifically). So I stepped to the left. Again. And again. 

I thought Anne would stop it, but she saw it, acknowledged it with an eye lock and a “what’re you gonna do” shrug, and did nothing. Instead, the four of us rotated a full 360 degrees so that VP could keep his hand glued to my backside (before I finally ran away). 

It was horrible, and too many of us have horror stories like that one. Fortunately, I’ve had the opposite experience too:

A few weeks into a new role I went to a dinner in San Francisco and sat at a table of twelve CEOs, board members and venture capitalists — ten of whom were men. The conversation at my end took a turn for the unacceptable — it was sexual in nature, degrading, demeaning and specifically targeted towards women. I was new to my role, the most junior person at the table by far, and I didn’t know what to do. I awkwardly laughed and tried to make the best of it, which is impossible. There’s no “best of it” to be made.

There was a man at the other end of the table — Fred, whom I will always admire and respect for this — he got up, walked to my end, sat down next to me and said to everyone, “Hey, what’re we talking about?” 

A man continued, in that bro-to-bro way, to talk about a topic that would literally get me kicked off LinkedIn if I published it. Fred just looked at everyone and went, “huh, well let’s not talk about that. Anyway what’s going on with…<and he changed the subject>” And it stopped. 

In one second it was over. 

I will forever be grateful for Fred for being an amazing colleague and bystander to me in that moment. It was a short comment and it changed everything. 

The short term bonus? We got to get back to the business of doing business, instead of shaming women. Imagine that.

The ugly truth is that microaggressions and macroaggressions happen regularly, and we have two choices: we can be like Anne, a silent witness, or we can be like Fred, and act.

All of us must make an effort to be prepared for these moments. Because without preparation we default to being like Anne —  terrible bystanders in the workplace. 

The Scouts Got at Least 1 Thing Right

  • I didn’t want to make it worse…
  • I was so shocked…I couldn’t believe he said that.
  • I’m so sorry that happened in the meeting. I want you to know I don’t feel that way.
  • <nervous laughter>

How many times have you seen a coworker do something aggressive or wrong, and everyone just sits there or laughs it off? How many times have you heard someone say, “I wasn’t going to say anything when he made that joke. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.” 

We’re so well trained not to make other people uncomfortable (especially when they have power) that we fail to do anything in the face of bias. God forbid we make that venture capitalist feel uncomfortable, or challenge the boss. We can’t afford to make them angry.

Case in point: Billy Bush, who laughed it off when Donald Trump said he grabs women by the pussy.

It’s just easier not to say anything.

It may be easier, but it’s also wrong. People haven’t thought about what to do in these painfully frequent workplace scenarios so they default to doing nothing. But every single situation like this is an opportunity for you to be a bystander for change, and the positive effects are numerous. You’ll change people’s behavior, for one thing. For another, you’ll go a long way toward making your workplace a more inclusive, safe space for yourself and the people you work with. 

You have more power than you realize.

The Scouts’ motto is “be prepared.” Two simple words, and a world of difference for people from marginalized communities who have to deal with microaggressions and inappropriate comments all the time. Listen, there are a ton of powerful and important ways to make a difference. Being a proactive, thoughtful bystander is one of them.

Three Practices of Effective Bystanders 

1. Know Exactly What You Want

You WANT to make people feel uncomfortable for their bad behavior. Even though we’re taught from an early age not to make people uncomfortable (especially people in power), that’s your goal here. Because they should be uncomfortable!

That’s the first goal. After that, you want to establish boundaries about what’s appropriate — make it clear you won’t let unacceptable behavior or comments go unnoticed. You want to elevate Black, Indigenous, and People of Color’s (BIPOC) voices, stories and experiences. And, you want to eliminate bullying in all forms. 

I’m going to repeat myself because it’s so important: what you want is to make people uncomfortable. This is going to challenge what you were taught as a child: to ignore awkwardness and be polite. It will feel uncomfortable for you, too. Remember, that’s your goal! 

2. Anticipate and Expect Bad Behavior

The number of times I’ve heard, “I couldn’t believe he said that! I didn’t know what to do so I just sat there,” is too many to count. The problem is, most of us don’t prepare ourselves to witness bad behavior. So we’re left frozen and shocked when we hear an inappropriate remark. 

Expect it to happen. Expect racist and sexist jokes, expect marginalized voices to be downplayed or ignored. Expect someone to say, “why isn’t there a white history month?” By anticipating comments like this, you’ll be ready to respond quickly and confidently.

3. Don’t be Afraid to Engage in Conversation 

The key word here is conversation. Not combat, or controversy, or confrontation. To be effective bystanders we have to let go of our us vs. them mentality, and open ourselves to having a conversation about why that comment is problematic or hurtful. Think about it: nobody feels receptive when they’re being attacked. But everyone wants to be heard, and most people don’t want to be assholes. Non-confrontational conversation is key. The discomfort may be inevitable, but discomfort doesn’t have to be combative. 

Bystanders are Powerful

The status quo has been to let bias, ignorance, and insensitivity run rampant in the office while we stare at our feet and mentally cringe. No more. We need to be thinking about this. We need to be prepared. Bystanders are not the decor — we are human beings with the power to stand up for what should be a basic human right: being treated with dignity and respect in our workplaces and everywhere else. 

All that stands between you and making a difference is a little preparation. What are you waiting for? 

5 Common Workplace Conversations where YOU can make a difference

This is by no means a complete list, and there are many great ideas out there — so let’s make this a working document. Please comment below and share your ideas and what’s worked for you in the past.

Conversation 1: Outright Racist Commentary or “Funny Story”

John tells a story with racist undertones or bold, racist statements. What do you say?

  1. Create discomfort: Well that’s uncomfortable. Can we go back to <insert any other topic>, and John — you and I should definitely catch up — I’d love to talk about that more some other time. 
  2. Redirect (don’t give the perpetrator any more airtime): JANE — tell me more about…

If John doesn’t want to let it go: That’s a longer conversation — let’s definitely have lunch and talk about it. Now’s not the time. Tomorrow lunch work for you?

Conversation 2: Someone gets volun-”told” to do work that isn’t appropriate for their job.

This happens a lot with administrative work and office housework — deciding who cleans up after the meetings. What do you say?

  1. If you witness it: I’m wondering if that’s the best use of her time. I’d like to brainstorm on some ideas about how to best manage the workload. Can we talk about it in more detail tomorrow?
    1. This provides you with a night to think through your response and a detailed plan, along with the resourcing you may need to be successful.
  2. If it happens to you: Happy to take my turn helping with setting up for the meeting, and  I’ll come up with a schedule so that we can all share that work.
    1. By suggesting that office housework should be rotating responsibility, you’re setting the stage for someone else to do it next time.

Conversation 3: Biased, sexist or offensive joke.

“Joking” is often used as a way for perpetrators to get away with putting others down. What could you say?

  1. I don’t get it. How is that funny? (The only way these jokes are funny is if you buy into the prejudice or bias. I have yet to find an offensive joke teller who can and is willing to explain why such a joke is funny.)
  2. You may get pushback and you may be told you need to have a sense of humor: I do have a sense of humor, but I don’t think I should have a sense of humor about this…I don’t see how it’s funny.

Conversation 4: Someone gets shut down, or ignored in a meeting.

  • Can we go back to what Grace was saying earlier? I’m not sure she was finished and I’m interested in what she was saying.

Conversation 5: Idea Hijack – Someone’s idea is taken in a meeting.

What exactly is idea hijack? It’s when one person states an opinion or idea, it gets ignored, and then someone else says “I have an idea” and repeats someone else’s idea as their own.

  • How is that different from what Grace was saying?

These responses get easier EACH time you use them. But if you’re worried you’ll forget what to say in the moment, I’ve created a planner-sized cheatsheet, so you can print it out and keep it in the back of your moleskin so you’re ready.

Try it, let me know how it goes, and share your ideas below about other scenarios or responses that you’ve experienced!

 

Download The Cheat Sheet for Your Planner

 

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