Why It’s Important to Compliment with Context, and Other Actions For Allies

Illustration of 2 hands holding DO and DON’T cards, with suggestions of what to say and not say when complimenting.

1. Compliment with context

Last week, Lacey Wilson of Nutanix interviewed me in a fireside chat for their employees. We covered a range of topics, including privilege, the mindset of being an “ally in training,” and specific scenarios of how to take action as an ally. One of them was especially insightful and helped me crystallize how I want to show up. With Lacey’s permission, I’m sharing it with all of you.

Here’s the scenario Lacey posed: “I overheard someone saying to a Black person: ‘You were so articulate in that meeting just now.’ How might an ally respond?”

I went on to explain that, while they most likely thought they were paying a compliment, many Black people don’t take it as one. Here’s why: There’s an underlying assumption that they couldn’t possibly be well-educated, well-spoken, or articulate. It’s a lousy stereotype.

In such situations, I recommend the seek-common-ground-and-educate approach. For example, “I used to think calling someone articulate was a compliment, but I have since learned many Black people don’t think so …” Then summarize the underlying negative stereotyping.

Lacey added that she always wonders, “Articulate compared to whom?” She then shared, “Most of the time, intentional or not, the person telling a Black person they’re ‘articulate’ is comparing them to white norms of communication and speaking.”

When paying a compliment, allies can make it more meaningful while reducing negative stereotyping by providing context. It’s as simple as explaining the baseline of our comparison. For example, “Your approach in meetings is outstanding. You have a unique ability to simplify any problem.” Or, “I watch a lot of webinars, and you are the best at engaging a remote audience.”

2. Don’t ask employees to “just put it on your credit card and expense it”

In 50 Ways You Might Have Privilege in the Workplace, I covered a few financially-related topics: You can afford to join out-of-office lunches or after-work social activities. You can manage monthly payments on any debt you have. You never have to decide which bills to pay or go without meals because of not being able to afford food.

If you have these privileges, it’s critical to realize that not everyone is in the same boat. Many people live paycheck to paycheck and aren’t able to float company expenses while waiting to get reimbursed. Furthermore, some people don’t have credit cards due to a lack of credit history, previous credit issues, or personal choice. Even if they do have one, their card may come with a limited credit line.

Need an employee to make purchases or travel on behalf of your company? Don’t ask them to “just put it on your credit card and expense it.” Instead, give employees corporate credit cards. If that’s not an option, offer to let them use yours.

(Thank you Erica Baker for first bringing this issue to my attention a couple of years ago.)

3. Carve out a project to showcase skills (or learn new ones)

In The antiracist leader: sponsorship, engineering leader Jill Wetzler makes it clear. To create equitable workplaces, we need to be intentional about “who we bring along with us” and seek protégés from underrepresented groups. For Black and brown employees specifically, having a sponsor can be a game-changer for their career.

Jill shares a boatload of ideas to act as a sponsor by creating opportunities. While I recommend reading the entire article, here’s one of my favorites: “Carve out a project that will showcase a protégé’s skills and/or help them fill a skill gap.”

Allies, can you make this happen?

4. Invite an underrepresented colleague to a high-profile meeting

Looking for more everyday actions to take as a sponsor? In an article for Forbes, Kevin Kruse interviewed me about Better Allies. Here’s one tip I shared on how to sponsor colleagues from underrepresented groups:

“Invite them to high-profile meetings. It might be a strategic planning video session, an advisory council meeting, or virtual drinks with the recently hired executive. When we can safely gather again, it might be grabbing lunch with some VIP. The next time you’re attending one of these high-profile meetings, invite a coworker from an underrepresented group to join you. (If you think you need to make sure it’s okay to do so, by all means, ask first.) Give them insight into the discussion while increasing their visibility with the people around the table.”

After reading the interview, Glenn Block, who leads product management at Microsoft, sent me a message of thanks:

“I am organizing a set of planning workshops this week. Your article is timely and reminded me to make sure I invite more women and marginalized folks. The meeting had a lot of senior folks, but I invited a few junior folks also into the room. Thank you!”

Thank you, Glenn!

5. Thwart privilege with a quick “Get over it”

In closing, here’s one more story from my public speaking life. Earlier this month, I delivered a keynote for a tech company. The employees were highly engaged, sharing experiences in the chat and asking great questions during the Q&A. That said, I was a bit taken aback by the final question: “What would you say if someone in the majority pushes back on creating a more inclusive meeting culture?”

Without thinking, I blurted out, “Get over it.” Then I added something along the lines of, “You’ve most likely had it your way your entire life, and now it’s time to change the culture to be more inclusive.”

Thank goodness it was the last question before we ran out of time. I wasn’t sure how my snarky response had been received, and I just wanted the event to be over.

Now for some good news. The moderator emailed me afterward saying that several people let him know my answer to that final question was the highlight of the talk. 🤗

That’s all for this week. I wish you strength and safety as we all move forward,

— Karen Catlin, Founder and Author of Better Allies®

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