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 DiversityInc.com. 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.


Question:

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.

Answer:

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.

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