Calling In Vs. Calling Out: When and How to Use One Approach Over the Other in the Workplace

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Receiving, giving, or asking for feedback in the workplace can be horrifying for some of us. We’re not sure whether we should do or say something in the moment, afterwards or at all. It can be even more horrifying when discussing issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)! Should we be calling out our manager to tell them that what they just said has sexist undertones? Do we ask our colleagues to further elaborate on a problematic statement they just shared? Will we even be in a place to accept feedback if given? Trust me, I know how you feel. As a human first, and as a facilitator and DEI practitioner second, I get these questions all of the time

While there’s no one standard way to ask for, receive, or give feedback, there are a few practices that I’ve used or witnessed in action that have proven to be effective. Let’s dive in!

What is the difference between calling-in and calling-out, and which should you use?
First let me start by saying that both approaches can be essential depending on the situation or circumstance you want to address. 

Calling-in: This approach is often used when people want to compassionately inform someone that what they’ve said or done is problematic, harmful and not okay. When using this approach, you have an understanding that as humans we all have room to grow in our knowledge about topics related to DEI such as identity, privilege, power, oppression, etc. As a result, you may choose to respond with curiosity instead of shaming. Using the call-in method provides an opportunity for the other person to learn and consider a different perspective in order to better understand why what was said or done is problematic. This approach is often used if you know that someone isn’t intentionally causing harm and/or may genuinely not know how their statement or behavior is harmful.

Calling-out: This approach is often used when calling-in doesn’t feel like an option. When using this approach, you’re responding to a statement, action or behavior that’s extremely harmful and needs to be addressed immediately. As a result, you may choose to respond with a sense of urgency and stop or pause the conversation or behavior in real time. This approach is often used if you know that someone is intentionally causing harm, if someone is consistently causing harm in the workplace, and/or is aware of how their statement and behavior is problematic, but chooses not to adjust or change.

What are some examples of calling-in and calling-out? 
Being in a remote, hybrid or in-person setting can change the way you decide to call people in/out. I often say that context and relational dynamics impact how we choose to respond and therefore should be considered, especially when we think about psychological and emotional safety in addition to possible repercussions or resistance. With this in mind, here are some examples of calling-in and calling-out in the workplace. 

 Calling-in examples:

  • “Can you say a bit more about what you mean by [insert statement, process, or word you want to understand]?” 
  • “I appreciate your intent and I’d like to talk about the impact this has on…” 
  • “I can see where you’re coming from and I don’t want us to…” 
  • “Thanks for sharing your perspective on this topic. I want to revisit [insert word or statement] because …” 
  • “You mentioned that we’ve been doing this process for a while and it’s been successful which is great. I also wonder what we can do differently that can further support our diversity efforts? For example…”

Calling-out examples: 

  • “I have to pause what’s happening right now because…” 
  • “I need to share with you how I’m reacting to what was just shared”
  • “As your colleague, it ‘s important for me to name that what was just said is not okay” 
  • “We need to unpack this a bit further because this can be very detrimental to…” 
  • “I can’t continue to be in this meeting/gathering if we continue discussing [insert topic] this way” 
  • “This is the [number of times] you’ve done this and it’s really harming our team dynamics/company culture” 

What can I do if I’m nervous about calling someone in or out?
It’s totally okay to be afraid or nervous about providing feedback! It’s a human emotion and reaction to take the path of least resistance especially when addressing problematic behaviors and statements, or when working to dismantle oppressive systems. Going against the grain and questioning the status quo can be challenging and will never be “comfortable” for many of us. 

With this in mind, it’s important to recognize what your emotional, physical, and psychological triggers are so that you’re in a position to give, receive, and/or ask for feedback. To support yourself when feeling stressed or anxious, you may want to practice deep breathing before or during an incident to help regulate stress hormones, or write down what it is that you want to say depending on which approach you use — calling-in or calling-out.

You may also decide to send a private message on a virtual platform or ask to follow up with someone after the incident has occured (note: it’s important to address a problematic situation as soon as possible and no later than a few hours or a day after an incident). Lastly, it’s okay to name how you’re feeling before you give feedback. Maybe you might need to say something like: “I’m really nervous to say this out loud but I feel a sense of disappointment about what was just said…” in order to feel a bit more grounded in your response. 

Should I provide feedback on behalf of someone else who is negatively impacted? 
Sometimes we may find ourselves wanting to call-in or call-out someone who has said something offensive about or to a colleague. While I’m totally in support of this, there are still a few things to consider such as: does my colleague want to be the center of attention right now? Am I speaking for my colleague and not allowing them to speak for themselves? Is my colleague even interpreting what was said or done in the same way? 

While your intent might be to show up as an ally for your colleague, this may not be what your colleague needs at the moment. If you’re addressing something virtually, you might decide to send a private message to your colleague letting them know that you’re not okay with what just happened and you plan to respond. This gives you an opportunity to gauge whether or not your colleague would be interested in you calling-in or calling-out someone. You can also send a private message to the person who has said or done something offensive letting them know what you noticed and/or giving them feedback privately.  If you choose to address the issue in real time, be sure to speak for yourself and not on behalf of the person being negatively impacted. You might say something like: “That wasn’t okay to say” or “That wasn’t funny to me” or, “I’d like to revisit [insert topic or statement that was made] because that doesn’t sit well with me or align with our company values.” 

Overall, calling-in or calling-out helps us create an environment in which we can hold ourselves accountable if or when something harmful is said or done. While there are many approaches you can use to provide feedback in the workplace, calling-in or calling-out provides a framework that can support you with communicating with your colleagues so you can move into awareness, understanding and change.