Cringe-Inducing Comments

Cringe-Inducing Comments

“No one at work – literally not one single person you work with – wants to hear your discriminating comments. Not one. They’re not funny, they’re inappropriate and they make your colleagues uncomfortable. Stop.”

How many times throughout your career have you wanted to say that to someone?

When a coworker makes a bigoted or discriminatory comment in the workplace, it makes their teammates cringe. The listener feels like they’re trapped in a conversational pitfall with a choice to either confront the person directly, escape the conversation, or try to move things along to the next subject and gloss over the offending remark. In any case, professionalism has been detracted.

From an inclusion perspective, this kind of behavior toxifies the work environment and could turn into a major problem down the road. Today, your company’s morale took a ding. Left unchecked, you could eventually lose a lot of your talented employees, productivity, and money. Nobody wants to work in a place where they feel uncomfortable, and this will ultimately impact your bottom line.

If you’re in this situation, you may be wondering how you should handle it. There are a few different steps you could take, depending on the specifics of what has occurred. So, it’s important to define the level of severity first.


How Should You Handle This?

The tricky part about how you should handle an offensive coworker’s comments is the way this behavior straddles a line requiring either a formal or an informal solution. Offensive behavior can be a major part of a harassment issue but does not necessarily constitute harassment when taken by itself.

Say, for example, a coworker makes an inappropriate remark about a certain demographic. While certainly disgusting, it only becomes harassment if it becomes a pattern or is “extremely serious.” The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is pretty clear about this.

“Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people,” the EEOC said.

To further clarify, the organization explained, “Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”

So, it’s difficult to approach the issue of an offhanded offensive comment with a formal disciplinary resolution, at least at first. But you can take measures to informally address the issue and hopefully curb the behavior before it escalates.



Many people find the initiation of confrontation to be a difficult thing, but it has to happen for change to take place. To make things easier on yourself, make time to talk to the offending commentator in a one-on-one setting. Keep things casual. This tends to make people more open to hearing what you have to say, rather than putting them on the defensive.

To get the best results, it’s recommended to keep your cool. Set your own passions and judgements about the offending remark aside. If you’re less emotional, the other person is more likely to be less emotional too. Stick to the facts about what happened.

Be straightforward and factual. For example, you should avoid beginning your approach by saying something like “Yesterday you made a racist comment,” because that is still inserting your own judgement into the issue. The other person might not have seen their comment as racist. Instead, start factually with something like “Yesterday, you said [offending phrase].” And go from there.

Express how this comment was a problem. Remember, the other person might not have been aware this behavior was problematic. So, inform them about how this cannot continue and how additional steps will need to be taken if it does.



Make sure to document the offending behavior and your attempt to informally resolve the issue. If the person doesn’t get the message and continues to offend, you’ll have material that can demonstrate a pattern of inappropriate conduct. This may help support formal actions later, if they’re needed.


Be Patient

It’s hard to advise others to be patient in this situation because offensive behavior should be stopped immediately, but a calm and factual approach is likely the best course of action. Don’t get dragged into an argument or debate. For the good of your company, you’ve got to dispassionately inform the individual their behavior was offensive and must not continue. Disarm them with professionalism and hopefully they’ll make an effort to watch their words moving forward.

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