Ask Them To Explain The Joke, and Other Actions for Allies

Each week, we share five simple actions to create a more inclusive workplace and be a better ally.

message board with I don’t get it. Please explain the joke to me. With a copy of the Better Allies book by Karen Catlin
message board with I don’t get it. Please explain the joke to me. With a copy of the Better Allies book by Karen Catlin
Photo credit Karen Catlin

1. Ask them to explain the joke

Last weekend, author Heather Thompson Day posted a tweet that immediately went viral:

“When I was 19 my boss said I should be a phone sex operator & laughed. I said ‘I don’t get it’ He said ‘it’s a joke’ I said ‘explain it to me’ & that’s how I learned that once sexual harassers have to explain why their inappropriate jokes are funny, they stop laughing.”

While we love this approach for someone who is on the receiving end of an offensive or harassing joke, it’s also something for allies to keep in their back pockets. A phrase to pull out when we hear an inappropriate joke, regardless of whether someone within earshot is personally offended or not.

“I don’t get it. Please explain the joke to me.”

2. Assume trade show booth staffers have expertise

At the MSIgnite conference last week, Microsoft employee Sonia Cuff witnessed an all-too-common phenomenon:

“Today at a booth when the female staffer said ‘Do you have a question?’ the male attendee said ‘Yes, but it’s a technical one.’”

Allies, let’s assume that someone working in the booth at a trade show has technical expertise in their products and can answer your questions. Even if they don’t fit the mold of what you think a technical expert might look like.

3. Share your questions before the interview

To set up candidates for success, consider sending them the questions you plan to ask ahead of time. Give them time to think, prepare, and provide an insightful answer. While this approach is especially important to candidates on the autism spectrum, it can be helpful to anyone.

For example, we heard from Dr. Jennifer M. Gómez, an Assistant Professor in clinical psychology at Wayne State University. She publishes interview questions to help all applicants be on equal footing in preparing for the campus visit:

“Questions I will ask applicants to our clinical psychology Ph.D. program are posted on under the Prospective Students section. I am not looking for who has the most in-grouped privilege. I want creative thinkers, hard workers, research fit/extension, etc.”

We love it!

4. Don’t ignore someone with a disability

Catalyst, a global non-profit focused on building workplaces that work for women, published an infographic on being inclusive when talking to someone with a disability. It’s full of examples of what to avoid saying, and what to say instead. While the entire graphic is worth checking out, we do have a favorite…

Afraid of saying the wrong thing to a colleague with a disability, we might stay silent. As Catalyst points out, intentionally or unintentionally overlooking or being fearful of a person’s disability can feel dehumanizing. Instead of saying nothing, they recommend a simple, “Hi, how are you?”

5. Don’t ask “Why aren’t you drinking?”

Before we know it, the holiday party season will be here. Here’s a friendly P.S.A.: Don’t ask someone why they’re opting for a non-alcoholic beverage.

There are myriad reasons someone might choose not to drink alcohol, including religious, age-related, pregnancy, addiction, and medical reasons. Additionally, some people might not want to get buzzed or just don’t like alcohol! Absolutely none of these reasons are anyone’s business, and not drinking shouldn’t make someone feel different from the group. Or that they don’t belong at the party.

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✉️ This content originally appeared in our newsletter, 5 Ally Actions. Subscribe to get it delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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Everyday actions to create inclusive, engaging workplaces. Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies® approach.

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