How to Call People In (Or Out) at Work

I was recently reminded of how difficult it can be to have tough conversations with coworkers when someone steps out of bounds. A related question came up in the Bossed Up Courage Community, too, where Jess asked:

“When do you say something and when do you give someone the benefit of the doubt? A male colleague did something minor, but annoying – in no way predatory or dangerous. His first offense (in my eyes at least). Let it go or say something?”

It’s important to first distinguish between two ways of speaking up: calling out or calling in.

What does it mean to “call out” versus “call in” someone?

In Franchesca Ramsey’s excellent book, Well, That Escalated Quickly, she breaks down these two definitions clearly:

Call out: (verb) To bring attention publicly to another person’s bigoted speech, behavior, sound bite, joke, lyric, article, Facebook post, tweet, Instagram story, Snapchat story, role in a television show, film, or performance – especially on Saturday Night Live or at the MTV Music Video Awards with the goal of making the bigoted person aware of their mistake and/or to raise awareness about a given issue

Call in: (verb) To initiate a one-on-one conversation to make another person aware of their own bigoted speech, behavior, sound bite, joke, lyric, article, Facebook post, tweet, Instagram story, Snapchat story, role in a television show, film, or performance – especially on Saturday Night Live or at the MTV Music Video Awards with the goal of helping an individual learn from their mistake and move forward productively

The main difference, you’ll notice, is whether you choose to have this conversation publicly or privately. Often times, calling out publicly is an act for the viewing public, not just for the benefit of the person you’re calling out. Calling in is more appropriate when you actually want this person’s behavior to change – and deem it possible to change, too.

Why does calling in and calling out matter?

We have to be willing to speak up when we see shady behavior go down. It’s a leadership move – it’s a boss move. We have to ask ourselves, “if not us, who?” We have to be willing to call out bad behavior when we see it – not only because it’s the moral thing to do, but also because it’s the charitable thing to do when the offending person has no clue how their behavior is being received.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. There are certainly negative repercussions that might result from our speaking up, and therefore it takes an amount of real privilege to be willing to stick your neck out on behalf of someone else or on behalf of what you believe in. But knowing how to speak up can help.

In today’s podcast (embedded at the top of this post), I describe a few all-too-real examples of how I called out and called in people who I felt I had less power than, but felt compelled to speak up anyway.

How to call in and call out

When you’re preparing to call someone in or out, consider the following questions as a way to open a courageous conversation when someone says something completely offensive:

“Why do you feel that way?”

“I don’t get it, can you explain it to me?”

If we can remember to take a breath and lead with curiosity instead of anger or disgust, it opens the door to a much more productive and informative conversation.

I’ve been working at this myself, with mixed success. I find when I get curious instead of furious, I’m better able to understand where that person is coming from and establish a baseline of empathy before launching into how their comments/actions made me feel.

How are you dismantling systems of injustice?

I’m curious to hear how you’ve been starting these powerful, yet uncomfortable conversations. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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