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How to React When You Hear an Offensive Comment

Aug 19, 2022


Imagine having lunch at work with a few co-workers. One of them is your good friend “John” whom you know from college. You know John is gay, but he hasn’t come out at work yet. During the conversation, one of your co-workers makes an off-the-cuff derogatory comment about same-sex marriages.

What do you do?

Unfortunately, these types of situations are far too common today – both inside and outside the workplace. And even more worrisome is the fact that as our workplaces become increasingly more diverse, so does our level of discomfort in working across differences. 

The Choices You Have

In situations like this, you have two choices.

You can choose to be a bystander. That is, a person who witnesses harm occurring but ignores the harm being done and takes no specific action to minimize, reduce, or stop it.

Or you can choose to be an ally. An ally is a person who voices or demonstrates moral and emotional support for someone to whom harm is being done. They pull people aside, helping them see the negative impact of their behavior and the unintended consequences. They show them there is a better way.

How To Speak Up in a Productive Way: Three Strategies That Work

  1. Explain the impact while assuming good intent on the part of the speaker. In other words, start with the assumption the person is a decent human being but clueless about the impact of their words. You can say something like: 

    I am sure you meant that to be funny but……

  2. Give them a chance to reexamine what they said by asking “non-blaming” questions. Because, sometimes, people don’t realize what they have said. So, you can ask questions like: 

    What do you mean when you say……? 

    It sounds like you are saying that ……. Is that what you mean?

    Again, the key is to give individuals a chance to think about what they said while giving them the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Sometimes you need to pause the action with feedback. You can describe the situation and the behavior you observed and then give feedback on the impact. The goal is to show the negative impact of the words. For example: 

    When you made the “lazy immigrant comment”, it hurt. As one of the many non-native speakers in this firm ---- (and you can go on explaining your point of view).

    Very important! Never speak for someone else. You can show the impact on you, not on another co-worker.

What You Need to Keep in Mind

Speaking up, that is, knowing how to address someone else’s hurtful comments or jokes--comments that are biased, demeaning, or prejudiced, can be difficult.

Unfortunately, staying silent only allows these attitudes and behaviors to thrive – because silence can be interpreted as indifference or agreement on your part.

Calling someone a “racist,” a “homophobe,” or a “sexist” will not work. The key is to interrupt the behavior in a manner that invites a conversation and does not diminish the individual.

With the right skills and courage, you can stand up for inclusion.



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