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Calling out bias in the workplace

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or not, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to the receiver based solely upon their personal characteristics.41

Here are some examples of comments that have the unintended negative impact of micro-aggressions:

  • To a racialized or Indigenous woman: “I would have never guessed that you were an engineer.”
  • When a female worker asks a male supervisor for extra help on a project or initiative, he asks: “Why do you need to work on this anyway?”
  • To a person with a disability: “You’re so inspirational.”

Here are six techniques for calling out bias and microaggressions. Choose the one(s) comfortable for you, and appropriate for the context. The most important thing is to speak up.42


Assume good intent

Assume the best without blaming, shaming, or insulting the person who said something biased.  Start by acknowledging the person’s positive intentions, then describe the negative results of the statement or behaviour.

Sample callouts:

  • “I’m sure you mean well, but that hurt.”

Seize the moment while remaining calm

It is sometimes essential to have that conversation there and then when you witness the bad behaviour while expressing your feelings in a non-threatening way. Step back if you feel anger and rage.

Sample callouts:

  • “That’s not always right.”
  • “Ouch, that hurt.”

Ask a question

When you encounter bias or microaggressions, asking questions opens the conversation. Sincere and open-ended questions that focus on the behaviour, event, or comment and, which do not blame the other person work best.

Sample callouts:

  • “What do you mean?”
  • “I’m sorry, what was that?”
  • “Why do you think…?”


Change the direction of the conversation abruptly, without requiring further discussion. If the conversation continues, it might be appropriate to walk away or remove yourself from the situation.

Sample callouts:

  • “I am not interested in having this conversation right now, but it’s important for you to know that I am not okay with what you just said.”
  • “Whoa, let’s not go down that path!”

Narrow the focus

You can call out bias and microaggressions by showing the attribute isn’t just about a certain group by suggesting that the trait is universal behaviour. This helps narrow the focus to an individual, rather than a whole group.

Sample callouts:

  • “I don’t think it’s a millennial thing. I think that applies to everyone.”
  • “You mean all managers? Or are you speaking of someone in particular?”

Schedule a meeting

If a manager or a colleague is continuously dismissive and condescending towards you, schedule a meeting to discuss it with them.

Sample callouts:

  • “I’d like to understand from you what success looks like on your team. Can you give me specific examples of what I need to do to be successful and receive recognition?”
  • “I have something I’d like to discuss with you that I think will help us work together more effectively.”