Be a Better Ally With These Clever Responses to Microaggressions

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

Better Allies®
3 min readMay 4, 2019


Picture of an old typewriter and phrases typed on paper “What makes you say that? We don’t do that here. I don’t get it. Can you explain the joke to me? Wow, that was awkward.”

1. Memorize phrases to use when you witness microaggressions

All too often, people in our workplaces experience microaggressions. These are verbal or nonverbal slights, or outright insults, aimed at someone simply because they are a member of a marginalized group. Perhaps they have expertise in a topic, yet are presumed not to have any. Or a Latina being told she has fantastic English. Or an LGBTQ person overhearing a homophobic joke. The list goes on. And with each one, people from underrepresented groups get subtle (and overt) messages that they don’t belong.

Speaking up when witnessing a microaggression isn’t necessarily easy because of power dynamics. So we recommend you have a couple of stock phrases to pull out when you need them. Here are some ideas:

“What makes you say that?”

“Why do you think she’s the right person to do <some lower level or administrative task>?”

“We don’t do that here.”

“I don’t get it. Can you explain the joke to me?”

“Wow, that was awkward.”

Want to learn more about microaggressions in the workplace? Check out this recent research by SurveyMonkey.

2. Don’t put “preferably Caucasian” or specify gender in your job description

Yup. It’s 2019, and we can’t believe we’re seeing this. A company is looking for a someone preferably Caucasian to fill a business development role and only female candidates for a sales position. Another company is looking for only men for a Vice President HR role.


And speaking of hiring…

3. Use objective criteria to evaluate job candidates

This isn’t the first time we’ve read research that shows men are judged on potential and women on past performance. Yet, a new study about candidates for managerial positions shows the bias is still happening.

Folks, let’s not hold women to a higher standard in the hiring process. Instead, use objective criteria, determined and agreed upon before the first candidate walks through the door, to evaluate everyone.

4. Embrace the singular “they”

Many of us tend to use “he or she” and “s/he” to refer to generically to a single person. But doing so is not inclusive to nonbinary people.

Furthermore, people do still use “he” on occasion, which can perpetuate bias. For example, imagine attending a hiring committee meeting for a software engineer and hearing someone say, “When the candidate arrives, he should first meet with ___.”

Instead, why not use the singular “they?”

The grammatically minded among us might find this awkward initially, but over time it becomes more familiar and natural.

Want to read more about using gender neutral language in the workplace? Check out this article by Alli Smalley at Power To Fly.

5. Ask, “What two changes would make it easier for you to do a great job?”

Laszlo Bock, CEO of Humu and former head of People Operations at Google, published an article in Fast Company, Your employment engagement survey is destroying your company’s culture. TL:DR: “After this massive investment, at best, leaders see charts and cross-cuts that only raise new concerns. These leaders are stuck–unable to take action, and powerless to make change on the things their people care about the most.” And the impact is that the company culture gets much worse.

He goes on to recommend asking for feedback regularly (and acting on it). One idea: in meetings, ask “What two changes would make it easier for you to do a great job?”

While his advice is applicable to all employees, why not start by asking people from underrepresented groups. And use their answers to identify some ways to be a better ally.

Being an ally is a journey. Want to join us?

Together, we can — and will — make a difference with the Better Allies™ approach.

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Better Allies®

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