How To Handle and Respond to Offensive Comments at Work
Few things are more uncomfortable than dealing with an offensive comment at work, but there are things you can do to handle the situation effectively.
No matter the nature of the comment, whether out of malice or ignorance, dealing with an offensive comment from a coworker or client can be uncomfortable and unnerving. If you’ve received a rude or hateful statement, let’s review a few strategies to help you handle and respond to offensive comments at work.
Stop and Think
When someone makes a rude, offensive, or discriminatory comment, you have the right to feel offended, sad, or even angry—all those emotions are valid. However, it’s not your responsibility to educate or respond to someone’s bad behavior, nor is it always safe to do so.
Once you’ve given yourself a moment to stop and process your feelings, ask yourself two questions: Do you have the emotional energy to spend on this person? And are you in a safe environment to respond to this person? Your first job is to protect yourself physically and mentally, so assess the situation before acting.
Know When To Walk Away
If you don’t feel safe enough to be in the same room as or respond to the offender, this is a serious problem. In fact, it might be one of the signs you’re in a hostile work environment. In these cases, ignoring the person or removing yourself from the situation is best. Sometimes, people choose to be vile or ignorant, and you can’t do anything to change the situation besides walk away and report the situation to HR.
Additionally, handling the situation immediately isn’t always appropriate, especially in front of other people. While you may be completely in the right, embarrassing or chastising another person in public or in private can put you in hot water.
Refocus, Address, and Explain
If you do feel like you’re in a space to address the situation, your first job is to refocus, as addressing them immediately doesn’t give you sufficient time to process. You could say, “Let’s focus on the task at hand,” or, “I don’t feel comfortable discussing that at the moment.” Then, when you have time, talk to them privately or schedule a meeting with an HR representative present if necessary. When discussing the situation, don’t become accusatory, as this causes people to shut down even if you are right. Allow them to explain what they said and why they said it. Then, explain why it’s offensive or why it hurt your feelings.
Take Action When Necessary
After you speak with them privately, the best-case scenario is that they recognize their actions, take accountability, and apologize. However, this may not be enough if the comment was particularly egregious or if they didn’t respond well to the conversation. In this case, reporting the incident might still be necessary. This is especially true if the person is a repeat offender.
You should never feel unsafe in your workplace. Sometimes, the best way to handle and respond to an offensive comment at work is to simply report the incident and leave it at that. Your emotional energy is precious, so spend it wisely.
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