Three woman workers in an office unsure of how to respond Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

A colleague says something completely inappropriate. She thinks she is being witty, but the comment made you feel awkward. You stop and think about what just happened, but cannot shake the uncomfortableness of the situation.

So, what do you do?

Here are 4 ways to help you handle inappropriate remarks.

1. Accept your Emotions

Heard something offensive that made you cringe? Don't question that feeling. Even if the person's intention wasn't to be hurtful, it's okay to feel shocked, frustrated, or confused.

A woman in an office looks confused about an offensive comment.

Stop and think about what just happened. Ask yourself why you're responding like this, feel those emotions, then decide what to do.

How to respond to inappropriate comments:

  • Take a breath.

  • Try to understand what exactly made you feel that way.

The goal is to make a well-thought-out decision.

2. Run a Benefit Analysis

There are good reasons to speak up. Some of the reasons are eliminating harassment from your workplace, and clearly stating your boundaries.

Some other reasons might include:

  1. Preserving your integrity.

  2. If you choose not to speak up, you're showing this is OK.

  3. Opportunity to change your colleague's behavior for the better.

Lisa Simpson from the American Television show The Simpsons, showing the graph she made

Weigh it against the costs.

Consider the following:

  1. Who you're dealing with?

  2. What might their reaction be?

  3. What the workplace costs will be?

3. Speak Up

If speaking up feels like the right choice, here are some ways to respond to inappropriate comments:

Ask Questions

Compassionately state how you feel, and follow it up with questions. Allow them to clear up misunderstandings.

Seth Meyers sitting at a desk stating,

Ask questions like:

  • "Can you repeat that?"

  • "What did that mean?"

  • "Where did you get the information about that?"

  • "Tell me more about what you're thinking."

While difficult, it might lead to a conversation and ultimately change behavior.

Show How it Impacted You

Use "I" statements to have a bigger influence on the person making an inappropriate comment.

For example, you can say, "You probably didn't mean it that way, but I felt angry from your comment."

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It may not be satisfying. When you show someone how they negatively affected you, they're more likely to change their behavior.

Say Something

If you've felt something is out of bounds, you should publically say something. The person may become defensive — or it may cause the person to apologize and reflect.

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Protect yourself from any retaliation, especially if the person is in a position of authority or you need to continue working together.

Encourage Dialog

If you choose to say something, be careful not to accuse the person of something. When people are defensive, they likely won't be willing to listen.

A person angrily says,

Don't assume the person understands they're being offensive.

By discussing the situation with the person, you can try to clear up any misunderstandings.

4. Handle The Situation

If the discussion doesn't work. There are other actions to take.

Ignore, Change the Subject, or Walk Away

An office worker in a swivelling desk chair. He tries to ignore a coworker by turning his chair away.

Not everyone will understand, but some people may pick up that they said something inappropriate.

Some ways to respond to inappropriate comments:

  • Ignore it.

  • Bring up a new topic.

  • Walk away.

  • Avoid the person in the future if it's possible to do so.

Raise it with an Authority Figure

Behavior didn't stop when you tried to deal with it directly? Take it to leadership.

US Politician Bernie Sanders saying

Some ways to respond to inappropriate comments:

  • Escalate the issue.

  • Get colleagues together.

  • Go to management as a group.

In a Position of Leadership?

If an employee has made inappropriate comments, it may be time to improve the work environment.

Kamala Harris says,

Some ways to respond to inappropriate comments:

  • Remain calm.

  • Listen to what your employees have to say about it.

  • Brainstorm appropriate actions you may take.

  • Give clear feedback about why the comment is inappropriate.

  • Evaluate your working relationship with the employee.

  • Take disciplinary actions if needed.

  • Check in with your employees who felt disrespected.

Quiz: George's Comment

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George, the new colleague, is eager to make a good impression in his first job after college. He is friendly and outgoing, but he sometimes doesn't realize how his words might be interpreted by others.

George grew up in a small town where diversity was limited, so he may lack exposure to different perspectives.

During a team meeting, George notices Adam wearing a kippah, a religious head covering. George makes a seemingly innocent comment, "Hey Adam, what's with the hat? Are you trying to start a new fashion trend?" George chuckles, thinking he's being witty.

Adam, who has been wearing his kippah for as long as he can remember, feels uncomfortable at being singled out in front of his colleagues.

While he's used to curious questions about his religious attire, he can't shake the feeling of being "bothered" in this professional setting.

However, as the team meeting progresses, you notice that Adam seems less affected by George's comment and continues to actively participate in the discussion. It becomes apparent that Adam values open communication and may be willing to address the situation directly if given the opportunity.


Sensing the tension, you, as a seasoned team member, have several options. What action should you take?

Take Action

Handling these situations can be uncomfortable. However, taking appropriate action can increase your confidence and create a safe and inclusive workplace.

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