The Most Diplomatic Way To Respond To An Offensive Comment At Work

The Most Diplomatic Way To Respond To An Offensive Comment At Work

You’re in the staff room when a coworker suddenly says something that seems to attack the core of your being. Resist the urge to fire back, and respond like this instead.

Photo Quinn Dombrowski.

When somebody says something that hits a nerve, Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of Law, and Alexander Czopp, director of the Center for Cross Cultural Research at Western Washington University, highly recommend you avoid levelling any accusations. Immediately labelling something as offensive will make the other party defensive, complicating the issue. Instead, Williams and Czopp suggest you explain how their comment makes you feel first. Amy Gallo at Harvard Business Review explains:

You might say “I know it wasn’t your intent, but that made me uncomfortable” or “I’m confused by what you said.” Don’t think of this as sidestepping the issue, Czopp says. “It’s a much more effective approach that is “more likely to change their behaviour in future situations.”

Once you’ve expressed your feelings, follow up with a question. Ask them something like, “What did you mean by that?” to get a better understanding and possibly kick off a discussion about what will make you both feel comfortable in the future. It’s possible they didn’t realise they were being offensive, or they may already regret what they said, or at the very least, they may be willing to adjust their behaviour in the future. In any case, you can’t go wrong being forward about how something makes you feel, then giving them an opportunity to explain themselves. Make it a discussion, not an argument.

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How to Respond to an Offensive Comment at Work [Harvard Business Review]


  • My colleage says it best “whats with the attitude?” this directs the person who spoke to re-evaluate how they are speaking without sounding rude. Works like a charm

    • Probably doesn’t work on some older guys who don’t even realise they’re being sexist and wouldn’t understand that response. Usually the context is a hopelessly misconceived “compliment” directed at one of my female staff.

      “I know it wasn’t your intent, but that made me uncomfortable” would probably work better with them.

  • From an employer perspective, they’d probably prefer you didn’t respond at all. Or that you take said discussion outside of work hours and premises. Nothing worse than employees having a heated discussion where other staff or worse, clients can hear.

    So a better response might be “I don’t think that’s appropriate to discuss at work. Maybe we can talk about it at a better time.”

    • I am an employee and often face such type of heated discussions and comments. So, the best way to calm everything down and don’t turn it over in getting worse is to not replying to them instead; just pass a sweet smile which indicates that you don’t want to comment on it. Or the other way is to ignore and start talking about work.

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