6 Brilliant Ways to Respond to an Offensive Remark by a Colleague

Being on the receiving end of an offensive remark can happen in any social setting, including in the workplace. Often, offense is generated from a misunderstanding and opposing views or beliefs, rather than ill intention. Regardless of whether it was intentional or not, offensive remarks make one feel uncomfortable and may affect performance. So if you find yourself taking offense to a colleague’s remark, what is the best way to respond?

Here’s a run through of six brilliant ways to respond to an offensive remark:

An instinctive response to any offensive remark is to retaliate with an equally, if not more, derisive comment. Rather than escalating the situation, it may be best to give no response at all. Firstly, your colleague may just be making an offhand, throwaway remark and didn’t mean to insult you. On the other hand, if their intention was in fact to offend you, you would be taking the high road by not providing a response.

Notwithstanding the first point, in some situations, it may be better to respond with a question enquiring why the offensive remark was made, rather than saying nothing at all. If you can tactfully get to the bottom of why such a remark was directed at you, then you can better manage your response and resolve any hostilities. It’s important to not let your emotions get the better of you in order to calmly seek clarification.The process of your seeking of clarification may in itself make your colleague realize they were insensitive and in the wrong.

Following on from Point 2,  ask yourself ‘What happened in the first place?’, ‘Where did the comment emerge from?’, ‘Was he/she just joking?’ Knowing the context allows you to let it go if you judge the offensive remark to be unintentional. If however, after considering the context, you judge the offense to be deliberate, then you can let your colleague know it was inappropriate and seek an apology.

It may be worth taking 5 to 10 minutes to analyze the remark, it’s context and your response, as your reaction may be taken against you. You may have received an offensive remark, but you don’t need to follow the steps of the one who gave it. Handling situations like this rationally and without sinking to the same level as the person who offended you will set a good example and ensure you don’t say anything equally offensive in the workplace!

If you decide that the best response is to address your colleague, then do it face-to-face, and do so privately. Do not create undue tension in the workplace and try not to involve more people than is necessary to resolve the conflict. If you manage to get a genuine apology, then quickly move on and no longer let the remark affect your work.

If it gets really tough, and you have exhausted other options, the best thing to do is let your HR department or supervising manager know (assuming they are not the one who offended you!). When you cannot resolve the situation alone, know that you have other colleagues in the workplace who can support you.

With your reputation, job and career at stake, it’s difficult to know whether to remain silent or to respond when a colleague makes an offensive remark. The context of each situation would require a different response. However, in all cases, it is best to not escalate what is happening but to seek an understanding, resolve any conflict and move on.

Raise the issue to an Authority

Speak privately

Think before you react

Recognize the context

Ask why the remark was made

Don’t respond

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