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What to do when a coworker says something offensive

Everything can be going perfectly at work, when suddenly a coworker says something that stops you in your tracks. The comment might be blatantly sexist or racist, or it might be harder to tell exactly why it makes you uncomfortable - but you know it does. How do you respond? 

Especially if you don't know the coworker well, it can be tricky to know what to say, or whether to say anything at all. The difficulty is compounded for women and people of color, who may be viewed negatively for speaking up in the office, according to research cited by the Harvard Business Review. If the comment comes from a boss or senior colleague, you may worry about the consequences of speaking up, especially when you're trying to prove yourself at work.

The Consequences Of Silence

However, saying nothing can give your coworkers the impression that this kind of language is acceptable. And that could mean hearing more of it in the future. Inappropriate comments and jokes can potentially escalate into a hostile workplace that may affect other coworkers as well.

If You Decide To Speak Up

It may be hard, but start by assuming your coworker didn't mean to offend you. The comment may have been intended as a joke, or based on outdated stereotypes. Here are some tips for talking to your coworker directly:

  • Talk to the person privately, if possible.
  • Use "I" statements to explain why the comment made you feel uncomfortable or why you believe it might make others uncomfortable. Try to avoid accusing your coworker of being sexist or racist, which could make him or her defensive and less willing to listen to you.
  • Ask questions about what your coworker meant.
  • Correct stereotypes or incorrect assumptions with facts

If your coworker truly did not mean anything by the comment, he or she may apologize and avoid saying similar things in the future. However, sometimes things don't go as smoothly.

If you keep hearing offensive language at work, you may need to talk to your human resources manager or supervisor. Remember that you have the right to a workplace free from discrimination and harassment.

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