We all make mistakes. But making mistakes at work, especially diversity-related mistakes, can be especially uncomfortable—for everyone involved. The key is to keep an open mind, educate yourself, and constantly learn and grow from your mistakes. Everyday we can strive to be more knowledgeable and inclusive than the day before, and we can reflect on our past actions and how they’ve impacted those around us.
It’s up to all of us to create a culture of accountability and establish ourselves as lifelong learners and allies. Women especially have long been subjected to unfair treatment, discrimination, and microaggressions in the workplace, and in order to foster truly inclusive workplaces, we all have to do our part in encouraging everyone to bring their whole selves to work.
We asked Marrietta Harrison, a certified diversity professional, and Deborah S. Willis, a diversity, equity, and inclusion leader and certified executive coach, for tips and advice on how to handle getting called out (read: corrected) at work in various situations and how to appropriately apologize.
Examples of diversity-related mistakes
Sometimes, it’s very obvious that you’ve made a mistake, and other times, you might not be aware that you’ve made a mistake until someone calls you out. These are a few examples of common diversity-related mistakes that can fly under the radar:
Using the incorrect pronoun(s) with a coworker
Asking someone to speak on behalf of their race or another identity
Being silent when witnessing a microaggression
Telling an inappropriate or culturally insensitive joke
Showing bias in a hiring decision
Ignoring comments from women or another marginalized group in a meeting
Interrupting people or ignoring them when they speak
Mispronouncing someone’s name
Using gendered language to address a group of people
How to handle getting called out…
During a 1:1
Having to discuss a diversity-related mistake during a 1:1 can be extremely anxiety-provoking. But remember that this isn’t about you or about someone attacking your character, this is about how your actions or words have hurt someone else—whether it was intentional or not.
Whether you’re a manager and your direct report is raising a concern, you’re an individual contributor and your manager is bringing a mistake to your attention, or a peer has scheduled a 1:1 with you to discuss the matter, never, ever get defensive. Willis advises to listen without interrupting, recognize the impact of your actions regardless of your intent, thank them for offering the feedback, apologize, and share how you plan to do better.
For example, if you misgendered a coworker or used incorrect pronouns, you could make a plan to read four articles about pronoun usage and creating an inclusive environment for coworkers belonging to the LGBTQ+ community. Share your plan with the person, and be open to feedback if they have suggestions about additional ways to rectify the situation. Report back when you’ve completed your task.
Read more: How to Have an Effective 1:1
During a meeting
Sometimes, we make more serious diversity-related mistakes that require an apology to a larger group of people or even lead to disciplinary action. Harrison says, “Acknowledge the mistake, be open-minded to learn from it, and accept any required diversity training that may come out of it as a result.”
If you’re called out publicly in a meeting, keep your response brief and polite. It’s better to follow up with the individual who called you out later in a more private setting so you can hash out what happened. Willis advises to pause before speaking, and if needed, ask for a moment to process the comment or call for a break in the meeting. It’s important to realize that others are witnessing the interaction, and you don’t want to make the entire room feel unnecessarily uncomfortable or awkward.
How to apologize for a mistake
Getting called out can produce a range of emotions—embarrassment, sadness, stress, anxiety, and even anger. Take a deep breath, actively listen to whoever called you out, and avoid activating the fight or flight mode of your brain. In order to grow, you need to fully understand what you did wrong and genuinely apologize.
“Taking accountability for the mistake is the first step. The person should verbally acknowledge that they are willing to learn about why the mistake was offensive and how they intend on changing their behavior moving forward,” says Harrison.
In your apology, Willis says it’s important to include five things:
Acknowledgement of wrongdoing
Gratitude to the person that provided feedback or called you out
An intent to change and educate yourself
Commitment to fostering or encouraging an inclusive environment and psychological safety
Specific actions you plan to take
Willis says, “If you don’t directly address the issue and are too vague, this could result in what I call ‘rebound’ anger and can just make the situation worse.” Remember that we all make mistakes, so it’s important to invite respectful corrections so we can all do better. Otherwise, nothing will change.
Read more: 9 TED Talks That Will Make You a Better Ally
Harrison explains that often, diversity-related mistakes are due to a lack of education or knowledge. Luckily, we have tons of resources to help prevent you from making a diversity-related mistake. Here are just a few:
About our sources
Marrietta Harrison manages employee experience at ComEd electric company as a manager of communications. Harrison is also a Certified Diversity Professional (CDP) and leads the organization’s DEI communications efforts, producing the annual Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion report. She also currently sits on the board for the Exelon ERG EAARA, Exelon African American Resource Alliance.
Deborah S. Willis is a passionate and enthusiastic educator, facilitator, and certified executive coach. She currently leads the Professional Development Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Certificate at Rackham Graduate School, a program she designed to prepare participants to work in a diverse environment while fostering a climate of inclusivity. Her coaching certification is from Georgetown University's Institute for Transformational Leadership and she's also credentialed by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC). Throughout her professional career, Dr. Willis has provided vision and advocacy for faculty, staff and students in the areas of leadership development, DEI professional development, and career development. Dr. Willis holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Michigan.