Interrupting Bias in Industry Settings

What (if anything) would you do or say?

In the hall, a colleague mentions Ramira has potential, if only she could learn to tone it down a bit and not be so abrasive.   You notice that someone is repeatedly interrupted in a meeting.   You hear someone coach a colleague on how to get ahead, encouraging her to take it “low and slow,” meaning to lower her voice and speak more slowly.
You’re sponsoring an employee who is unsure whether or not they should take on a risky assignment.   You see someone getting credit for something another colleague said earlier in the meeting.   While standing at the buffet at a company-catered event, you overhear someone ask a colleague of color for more coffee.
You recommend an employee you’re sponsoring for an opportunity, but get the response, “we’re not sure she’s the right fit; she’s not really a natural leader.”   Work meetings typically include spirited discussion and argument, but Janelle consistently avoids engaging in that manner; instead, she prefers to respond via email later on.   You hear someone say that there’s been a push to hire more women (or other underrepresented groups) and that they are being hired over men or other groups, even when not as qualified.

Should You Intervene? Some Benefits and Costs

There can be benefits and costs to intervening, especially when considering clear status and power differences in relationships. For example, it can be more costly to confront someone more powerful. There might be more costs when intervening with a manager than with a peer so different strategies may be needed in these different situations.

Not intervening can lead to “rumination” (repeatedly reflecting on and regretting the inaction), which can have physical, emotional, and job-related effects for bystanders.

Benefits of intervening include reducing the harm experienced, reducing future bias, promoting equity, shifting norms, and increasing the bystander’s self-esteem and positive affect.


Before You Act, Assess the Situation by Asking Yourself:

  • Is it bias?
  • Is it important to address?
  • Should I interrupt now?
  • Should I take the person aside later or address this issue at a later time?
  • Is acting too costly for me or someone else?
  • What is stopping me from intervening?
  • What could you, anyone in the scenario, or the organization do to prevent future instances?
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Consider How Your Relationships and Roles Affect How You Intervene:

  • What kind of relationship do I have with the people in the scenario? Do I know them well or not and how does that influence what I could or could not say/do?
  • How does my role or status in my team or in my organization influence what I could or could not say/do?
  • How might my gender, race (or other identities) influence what I could or could not say/do?
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Some Possible Ways to Intervene:

  • Ask a question.
  • Avoid accusations and instead invite clarification (E.g., “What do you mean by that?”)
  • Arouse dissonance: people don’t like to be inconsistent. E.g., “I’m surprised you would say something like that, considering how supportive you are of women in computing.”
  • “Pivot:” this is a way of not confronting directly, but letting people know they made a mistake in a socially graceful way. E.g., if someone thinks that a colleague is a clerical worker, walk up and say, “Hi, have you met our new software engineer?” Or, If someone is interrupting someone, say, “I think Jamie had a thought she wanted to finish?”
  • Use humor (when appropriate for the situation or your relationship with a colleague).


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