Ask the White Guy: How Do You Respond to Offensive Language at the Office

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.


I recently was in a situation at work where a coworker made transphobic statements about a customer (out of earshot, thank God). He said things like, “That person isn’t really a woman,” and went on to mention how proud he was of himself for being able to “tell.” What are the best ways to react to such comments I’m a queer white woman who’s out, and I wanted to engage my coworker in conversation as a peer so that our work relationship can continue to be positive, and so that we can have the kind of dialogue that eventually leads to greater understanding. At the same time, I also wanted to make it clear that what he said was unacceptable and that I won’t stand for it.


Responding to offensive language requires discretion, tact and bravery.

Although your e-mail is very kindly worded, most people do not have the communication skills to offer successful criticism. That’s OK: Direct criticism is not always necessary. If you feel the person is purposely being offensive–especially in the workplace–good companies, like those in the DiversityInc Top 50, have procedural remedies to a hostile environment.

However, if you feel the person is simply ignorant of the pain his or her comments are creating, and you wish to intercede, then I think you need to plan what you’re going to say carefully, especially if you wish to change the person’s understanding of what’s acceptable and not just stop the (overt) offensive behavior. I suggest you offer a critique without an audience and in person if possible. Pick a semi-public place for your own safety.

Most people aren’t bigots, sexists or homophobes–and if handled with generosity, will respond to kindly offered dialogue. A fellow Navy pilot who took the time to explain his experience as an African American as he helped me be our office’s “minority officer recruiter” changed the trajectory of my life in the 1980s.

This doesn’t mean that you’re always going to have a “kumbaya” moment. My experience with the responses to this publication is that many people stubbornly hold onto their discriminatory views and take criticism as a personal attack, even when it’s counterproductive. Take your incident, for example. Only a creep would make a comment like that–especially considering he was in a work environment with an out lesbian in his company.

If the person is in a superior position to you and you’re afraid of retribution, be careful. Again, this doesn’t mean that you have to accept intolerant, bigoted, sexist or homophobic language in your workplace–if your company does, then you need to move immediately if you can (check out our career center).

Although I don’t recommend this in most cases, I’ve seen how people can have some fun with this kind of thing–we’ve received several “outraged” e-mails from bigots who were probably signed up for our e-mail newsletter by coworkers.

One last point: Be careful of extremists. There are people who hold intense opinions (from every perspective) and use their “views” as a way to be certain in an uncertain world. I get hate mail from many extremes. With the exception of confronting people who are threatening violence, I leave them alone. I believe in the old adage: “Never try to teach a pig to sing–it’s a waste of time and annoys the pig.”

That’s not to say that you can’t turn the pig into pork chops. I heard a great story from a CEO. During his time as a regional vice president, his customer counterpart made an overt racist action against one of his team’s members in a sales meeting. The future CEO took action by refusing to do business with this company (despite short-lived internal pressure to the contrary). The word spread about the racist incident, the racist was fired and the companies went on to do business together.

Latest News

Toyota Earns the Most R&D Patents Among Automakers in IPO Rankings for 8th Consecutive Year

Originally published at Toyota ranked No. 7 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   The United States Patent and Trademark Office awarded Toyota more patents than any other automaker in 2021, according to an annual ranking by the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO). Toyota’s engineers…

Wells Fargo Announces New Initiative To Help Customers Avoid Overdraft Fees and Meet Short-Term Cash Needs

Originally published at Wells Fargo ranked No. 25 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   Wells Fargo announced new efforts to limit overdraft-related fees and give customers more flexible options to meet their personal financial needs. These offerings, which include earlier access to direct deposits,…

multi race business woman

New Report Shows Significant Increase in Female and Black Representation in the Executive Boardroom

Diversity and inclusion appear to be successfully increasing among America’s largest and most successful companies. The finding comes from a new report conducted by executive recruiting firm Crist Kolder Associates as part of its review of DEI representation in executive offices. Ariel Zilber of the New York Post reported that…

Taco Bell

Taco Bell Creates Business School To Help Underrepresented Groups Become Franchise Owners

Taco Bell and the popular fast-food chain’s owner Yum! Brands have entered the DEI arena with a new business school designed to help people of all backgrounds — and people of color in particular — advance into restaurant ownership. Jonathan Maze of Restaurant Business reported that “a select group of…

LGBTQ dog tags

US Government Will Now Allow Veterans To Identify As Trans on Veteran Affairs Medical Records

In another giant leap forward for LGBTQ+ rights and equality in the military, the federal government has announced that military veterans can now officially identify as trans in their official medical records. Brody Levesque of the Los Angeles Blade reported that Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough has confirmed that veterans…