“Please send me profile shots of all the job applicants. I would like to see how they look, before hiring someone for the Operations Manager’s role.” A Senior Director at a marketing firm made this remark, and the team members were deeply offended on hearing it. Shocking as they might be, such remarks do occur at workplaces. People often make inappropriate, hurtful comments, despite not wanting to discriminate against others. How does one respond to them? What can we do to change such behavior?

Joan Williams, Founder of the Center for WorkLife Law, says that the decision to respond is particularly risky because it involves “two of the most corrosive elements of bias in the workplace”: the uncertainty of whether what you heard is bias, and the fear that you might be reprimanded for how you handle it. However, according to research by psychologist A.Z. Czopp, “addressing offensive behavior in the right way in the moment can change it in the future.”

Here are some questions you can ask, before addressing the situation:

  • What is the impact of this offensive remark? When we don’t respond to a hurtful or disruptive situation, the message we send is that it’s okay for something like that to occur. But it is important to assess the cost of that behavior, especially when the remark is sexist or racist. How does it reflect on the culture of the organization? How would it impact other team members? What is the degree of unsafety it causes? Ask these questions to gauge the impact of the remark.

    Moreover, if you are in a position of leadership, you are not only responsible for addressing the challenge, but can also influence the consequences more. Even if you are not directly involved in the situation.

  • Am I making assumptions? Many times we happen to judge a situation wrong. If you decide to talk about it, approach the situation as if the person didn’t mean to offend you. Often, “the person is just clueless and doesn’t know how their behavior is being interpreted,” Williams explains. If you are still unsure, share a snippet about when you had said something that offended people. That will help dissolve defenses. You may also want to share your reaction to the remark. Try “I know it wasn’t your intent, but that made me uncomfortable” or “I’m confused by what you said.”
  • What question can I ask, to clarify? If you choose to share your reactions, follow it up with questions like: “What were you referring to, when you said that,” or “What information are you basing your remark on?” Invite people to have a conversation with you. This might tell them that their speech had a negative effect on others.

Using these questions will help you create a framework for the action you might want to take, be it reporting the person to the Human Resources team, or appealing to the authorities to take over. Either way, when a comment feels uncomfortable, we encourage you to be curious and look into it.

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