The Best Way to Deal with Offensive Comments at Work

The behaviour we walk past is the behaviour we accept. This is especially true of the workplace, where insulting comments in the office or on the factory floor can – left unchecked – dramatically impact morale and productivity.

Employees look to you for guidance and support when someone in the organisation is saying misguided, hurtful or unacceptable things. If you hold back, the message is clear – workers feel they are not valuable enough to defend.

How often does it happen? Too often

According to research by Safe Work Australia, workplace harassment in various forms has a negative impact on both the psychological wellbeing of employees and organisational processes.

The ‘Bullying and Harassment in Australian Workplaces’ study also shows just how common it is. Respondents from a representative workplace sample reported:

  • Being sworn or yelled at (37.2%)
  • Being humiliated in front of others (23.2%)
  • Unfair treatment due to gender (10.9%)
  • Negative comments about race or ethnicity (7.4%)

Every workplace has conflict potential

The range of potentially upsetting remarks is as wide as the range of employees in your workplace. Think of all those differences in cultural expectations, political beliefs, religion, gender, age, nationality and ethnicity.

Often, unwanted comments stem from ignorance, poor attempts at joke-telling or personal insecurities.

Many employers use a whole range of justifications to minimise the issues and avoid confrontation. Typical reactions include ‘it’s not really that bad’, ‘it will probably settle down’ or ‘we’re all being too sensitive’.

Yet this just allows the behaviour to continue, quickly becoming an entrenched part of your business culture.

Harness the power of courageous conversations

The good news? Smart employers can follow a clear road out of this treacherous workplace territory.

Have a conversation with the offending employee, in a respectful, non-confrontational way. This will help you air the issues and find creative, enduring solutions.

  • Approach the employee with confidence and don’t give in to fears of ‘escalating’ the conflict.
  • Target the behaviour or comments rather than the person, so it is less likely to be experienced as a direct attack.
  • Give the person space, listen carefully to their response and keep your own personal feelings firmly in check.
  • Speak clearly about your expectations around behaviour and respectful office relationships – no ambivalence or watering down!

Provide clear processes and systems going forward

We model what we see. If your employees see you confronting someone over an inappropriate comment, they are more likely to confront someone themselves in the future.

Encourage employees to safely disclose troubling incidents. Allow them to do so in a protective framework, so they don’t feel exposed. Establish clear guidelines and procedures so everyone knows exactly what to do.Ask us how we can help you create a safe, resilient workplace culture.

Offensive comments at work can derail teams. Whether it’s a casual remark or ongoing bullying, it’s essential to address it. Here’s how..

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