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Say the Right Thing: How to Be a Better Ally

Here are essential allyship phrases to know.

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Over the last few years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people who want to be allies to women and people of color--both in my professional life as a consultant as well as in my personal life with friends and family. Having had so many conversations, it’s clear that the guidance below is helpful for everyone.

Being an ally sounds great, in theory, but many advisors have confided in me that while their intentions are good, they get stuck on what to say in the moment when their allyship is needed. And while much of allyship happens in the background, some of the most impactful opportunities to help happen in front of other people and require real-time reaction. Those moments that require you to speak up also tend to be uncomfortable ones; feeling prepared can ease that discomfort somewhat.

To move your allyship from intention to action, it helps to know what to say and easily recognize when you need to say it.

Below are situations that call for active allyship. Read through them to identify situations you may have experienced. Imagine those situations happening again but, this time, with you stepping up as an ally. It’s hard to know what to say in the moment, so I’ve included sample responses as well. Of course, every work culture is different, and each individual’s communication style is unique. So for some situations, I’ve given various examples so you can mix and match, then customize to fit your style. If you can practice a few of these phrases privately (even in the mirror!), the words will come to you easier when you’re in the moment.

"We don’t do that here."
This phrase works well in a variety of situations. If you’re going to memorize just one phrase, let it be this one. I want to break it down here because each element of the phrase is working.

"We": Specifically using the word “we” brings the offender into the community or group and lets them know that you have the same expectations for them as you have for yourself and other peers. It changes the tone from accusation to standards setting.

"Don't do that": The specific behavior that just happened is unacceptable. 

"Here": The word “here” indicates this issue is location-specific, but the behavior is likely unacceptable in many places. Using “here” makes it clear that what is happening right now, right here, must stop immediately.

Verbal or Physical Sexual Harassment

If you witness sexual harassment, assault, or any other type of degrading behavior, step in and say something. Men have a particular responsibility in this area as women are far more likely to be on the receiving end of harassment and may feel scared to speak up since doing so puts them in danger of additional or retaliatory harassment.

Situation: You witness sexual harassment, unwelcome sexual advances, sexual “jokes,” and so on.

Phrase: "We don’t do that here." (See above.)
Alternate phrasing: "[Name], knock that off. Now."
Phrasing for the harassed person to use: "Hey, let’s keep it professional, OK?"

Note that the phrasing for the harassed person to use is lighter in tone. This is because the person being harassed is often in danger of additional harassment. Although a victim should not have to consider the feelings of their harasser in their response, this is a calculated safety measure that many women know is essential to take. 

Situation: You witness what you suspect is unwanted touching (typically at a social event, but it can also happen in the office). 

Phrase: (Join the conversation) "[Victims name], are you doing OK?"
Alternate phrasing if you are more certain the touching is unwanted: "[Victims name], could I chat with you for a moment? I need your opinion on something."

This gives the victim a way out of the interaction. You can tell her the situation looked uncomfortable and offer to walk with her out of the room if she wants that. If you read the situation incorrectly, apologize quickly and let her return to the conversation.

After witnessing sexual harassment, unwanted touching, or assault, follow up privately with the affected woman to see if she would like support, including helping her to report the behavior. Please respect her answer, and do not push her to report if she does not want to (or vice versa).

Degrading Comments, Including "Jokes”

Situation: Someone tells a racist, sexist, homophobic, or other “joke.”

Phrase: "Hey [name], that’s not funny."
Alternate phrasing: "What do you mean by that joke?"
Alternate phrasing: "That joke is sexist/racist/homophobic, and we don’t tolerate that kind of language or behavior."

Situation: Someone makes a degrading comment about a colleague or group of people, present or not, based on their race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and so on. 

Phrase: "I'm sorry, I must have heard you wrong, can you repeat that?"
Alternate phrasing: "That’s inappropriate."
Alternate phrasing: "Why would you think that’s an OK thing to say?"

Situation: Same as above (“jokes” or degrading comments) but they are about you or a group you are a part of.

Phrase: "You may not realize this, but that is a harmful thing to say because it [specific effect]."
Alternate phrasing: "I don’t deserve this disrespect."
Alternate phrasing: "Ouch."

Additional phrases that work for the three situations listed above:

  • "I can't believe you said that."
  • "That is racist/sexist/homophobic."
  • "I am offended by that remark."
  • "Hold on a second. We treat everyone with respect here, right?"
  • "Can you please explain what you meant by that comment?"
  • "That is not an OK thing to say."
  • "Did you intend to say something so blatantly disrespectful? Would you like to rephrase?"

Meeting Dynamics

Situation: In a meeting, you notice that women or people of color are not prioritized to speak. This can be at the office, at a conference planning committee meeting, at a networking event, or any professional collaboration.

Phrase: "[List of names], I noticed you all have been quiet, and I wonder if there is anything you’d like to share on this topic?

By offering multiple people the opportunity to speak at once, this allows you to “pass the microphone” without putting one person uncomfortably in the spotlight.

Situation: A colleague continuously interrupts women in a meeting.

Phrase: "[Name], can you hold that thought for a moment? [Interrupted person] was speaking, and I’d like to hear the rest of what she had to say before we switch gears."

Situation: You notice a colleague taking credit for the work or ideas of another colleague (typically from an underrepresented group).

Phrase: "That sounds quite similar to the proposal [name] sent out last week. Can we make sure we hear from her before we take this discussion any further so we can give her credit and make sure we consider the details of her proposal?

When It's a Client

While the situations above are framed as being between colleagues, what should you do when the offending party is your client? There are no easy answers. How you might respond depends on what the client said or did, as well as how much control you have at the company where you work. Below is a range of ideas that you can adapt to your situation.

  • Report the client’s offending behavior to your manager. Be mentally prepared for your manager not to take action, though. Unfortunately, business decisions often prioritize revenues over employee safety and well-being.
  • Tell your manager what the client said or did, and request that you either no longer meet with that client or at least always have a colleague in the room (or Zoom) for all meetings with that client.
  • Say something to the client. You can select from the phrases in the prior sections and adapt to the situation.
  • Warn the client that that type of behavior or language is not tolerated, and that if it happens again, you’ll have to terminate the business relationship with them.
  • Fire the client.

Being “Corrected” While Learning to Be an Ally

Situation: While trying to support your colleagues and be an ally, your actions or words unintentionally cause harm or do not have the positive impact you intended. Someone offers you feedback or maybe even criticism on your approach.

First: Pause, breathe, remind yourself not to get defensive, and thank your colleague for offering the information. Take the feedback not as a personal criticism but as an opportunity to develop a better communications skill-set. 

Phrase: "Thank you for telling me this. I’m sorry about the impact my words/actions had on you." (See the next section for an apology template if an apology is necessary.)
Alternate phrasing: "I hadn’t thought about that before. Thanks for taking the time to tell me this."
Alternate phrasing: "This is a good thing for me to think about. I appreciate you sharing that with me; I will do some reflection and look to learn more."

Apologizing

Know that you will eventually be the person who does or says the wrong thing. Even though your intent was good, the impact of your words or actions may hurt someone. When this happens, apologize for your impact. An apology is not about you or your feelings. An apology is about acknowledging harm done and taking steps to repair that damage. Being willing to apologize when your impact does not match your intent is an incredibly valuable tool for maintaining business relationships.

Situation: You’ve done or said something that has caused harm or disrespect to another person or group.

Phrase: "I’m sorry for the [specific harm] that I caused. Although that was not my intent, I can see that the impact of my [specific actions/words] were harmful to you. [Specify how you intend to repair the damage.] [Name how you will do better next time.]"

This apology template can be easier to understand by trying it first with an obvious error. For example:

"I’m sorry for breaking your window while playing catch in your yard. Although that was not my intent, I can see that the impact of my bad throw damaged your home. I will call a window repair service immediately and will pay for the new window. And next time I play catch, I’ll go to the park instead of playing in your yard.

Now for a work example:

"I’m sorry for making that joke about Jewish people. Although I was trying to lighten the mood, I can see now that the impact of my words actually did the opposite and that the joke is actually antisemitic. I apologize and am open to hearing your feedback, if you wish to give it. Going forward, I will be more mindful about the language I use."

I imagine you’ve found a couple of familiar situations. Choose a few phrases that resonate with you, or make your own, then practice them a few times. When the moment comes, step up and take action. 

Sonya Dreizler is a speaker, author, and consultant focused on fostering candid conversations about gender and race in financial services. She is also a subject matter expert in ESG and responsible investing, and a former chief executive officer for an independent broker/dealer/registered investment advisor. The author is a freelance contributor to Morningstar. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.