Terrible Words: How to React to Abusive Colleagues and Subordinates


During the conversation, your colleague told something that instantly made you feel uncomfortable. They thought that they were just joking but their words sounded unpleasant - or even contained abusive, racist or sexist hints. What should you do in such a situation? Can you attract attention to the abusive words without provoking the colleague’s negative response? Would it be risky for your reputation and career on the whole?

Expert opinion

The situation is truly complicated. According to Joan Williams, the founder and the head of Center WorkLife Law in the Hastings College at the University of California, such decisions involve a risk, as they include two unpleasant issues connected to prejudices at work: uncertainty that what you heard is really an act of hostility and the fear of punishment for your reaction. In such cases doubts are purely natural: you are not sure if you understood the person correctly or they just joked.

Even if you think that you will certainly give some reply in this situation, the reality can prove you wrong. According to the research of the head of the International Research Center at the Western Washington University Alexander Zopp and his colleagues, there is the inconsistency between the reaction people expect and their actual reaction. Here are some pieces of advice how to act next time when someone tells you something abusive.

Consider the benefits of the reaction

The first step is to decide whether you should attract attention to the abusive words. Undoubtedly there is a whole number of important reasons for that. To raise your self-esteem and to get rid of racism among the staff are worthy reasons, Williams says. “Your silence signalizes that everything is alright. In fact, you permitted the person to act the same again and again”, he believes. Probably, you get a chance to change your colleague’s behaviour to the better, and such a chance shouldn’t be missed. Zopp’s research shows that the appropriate reaction to the abusive behaviour in the moment when it occurred may lead to the positive changes in the future.

If you are the head of the disturber, you have better chances. The managers are responsible (sometimes by the law) to provide that no one of employees is threatened or feels awkward at work. What is more, the research shows that your influence will be stronger if you don’t belong to the category that the abuser is against, Williams explains: “For example, when sexism is involved, men standing up for women sound more convincing. We trust them more because they are not concerned about being abused”.

Assess the cost of the reaction

Williams adds that you must consider, who you are dealing with, what the person’s reaction and, respectively, the cost of it will be if you confront them. The reaction can be simply scornful (“You are exaggerating. I was only joking”) or defensive (“What are you accusing me of?”). Remember how this person usually replies to objections. Is introspection typical of them? Are their intentions good? It is also important to consider if the person has the authority over you and the possibility of that you will be punished for your behaviour. “Your personal safety or your job is at stake”, Zopp says. Especially this concerns the situation when you represent the group that is being abused. Williams’s research shows that women and racial minorities face a harsher reply when they try to demonstrate perseverance. It doesn’t mean that you should say nothing, but it is important to consider the consequences. However, if your foremost goal is to keep your job, you probably shouldn’t get into the confrontation.

Don’t jump into conclusions

If you decide to speak up, approach the situation as if the person didn’t mean to offend you. In most cases, as Williams explains, the offender doesn't even suspect and can’t understand how their behaviour can be interpreted. Show compassion, you must have made mistakes too. “Everyone has lost their face at one time or another, you are no perfection too”, says Williams. You should probably share an example from your own experience when you said something that you regretted bitterly afterward. The mention that you have been in a similar situation can decrease the person’s defensive reaction and make them more susceptible to your point of view.

Don’t accuse

Do not throw hasty accusations. Zopp's research points out that harsh remarks - for example, "this is racism" - lead to more intensive defensive actions. Zopp is convinced that most people make a mountain out of a molehill, displaying excessive harshness: "The word "racism” reminds us about the adherents of the ideas of white domination, the Ku Klux Klan and the burning crosses - any hint of it will be unpleasant." Williams agrees: "By entering into confrontation with the abuser, you can feel like a righteous person, but no one likes to hear that he is a sexist, racist or behaving insultingly."

employeeExplain your reaction to the abusive words

Williams suggests asking such a question right after the abusive remark as: “What do you mean?” or “What information does your remark base on?”. Involving the person in a discussion, you can help him or her to look into his or her own prejudices and clear the matters that he or she probably doesn’t quite understand.  It may be worthy to ask him to repeat his or her words. It will make the person think over the true meaning of the statement and the effect it created and give him or her an opportunity to take back his or her words.

Share information

If the person doesn’t think his or her comment is abusive, you can help him or her to expand the horizons by suggesting a certain observation or useful information. For example, if the person supposed that your colleague was slacking off work by going home earlier, you could reply like this: “Recently I’ve read a very interesting research which showed that when women leave office we always suppose that they are going for their children. When men do the same, we don’t even notice that”. It is important to say it in such a voice that doesn’t sound like concealed aggression. The more sincere your intention to share information and not stigmatize the person for his or her prejudices will be, the more likely the person will listen to you.

Try alternative approaches

If you decide that it's embarrassing to engage in an open confrontation, there are other ways, says Zopp. For example, you can change the subject, thereby sending a signal to a person that you do not approve of his or her remark. "We have to rely on the fact that a person has enough empathy to understand this sign," he says. You can also try to wait and see what happens. Sometimes the abuser realizes his or her mistake and apologizes.

Or ... just throw down the gauntlet

Depending on the gravity of the insult, you can decide that you do not care about another person’s self-esteem, notes Williams: "You may have a feeling that it's time to throw down a gauntlet. If you have weighed all the pros and cons, that's fine. And if a person bristles and turns on a defensive reaction, you now have even more information about his or her true face. "

Clever Control continues to research the best ways to react to the colleagues’ and subordinates’ offensive behaviour. To let it off or to accuse? To deal with the abuser yourself or to refer to the manager? What is the right and what is the wrong behaviour? These and other questions are discussed in this two-part article.

Refer to the manager

If the offensive remarks continue and you feel uneasy, perhaps it is worth drawing the attention of the management. Williams says your strength is in numbers: "Are there other people in the team who were insulted and who can provide evidence that this employee creates a hostile climate in the team? If you tried to solve the problem on your own and could not, you can tell about this in private to someone who has a higher post. " You can say: "A whole group of people found themselves in an unpleasant situation, we need your advice." Just remember, warns Williams, that "by inflating the situation, you spend most of your political capital."

What to do

Consider the consequences of that you keep silent. Leaving a comment without an answer, you may give the person a permission to do so again and again.

Be aware that if you are on a managing post, you are responsible for dealing with insults.

Ask questions that will help a person think about what has been said and clarify a possible misunderstanding.

What not to do

Do not forget to think about the negative consequences, especially if you personally were the target of an insulting comment.

Do not assume that the person wanted to offend you or anyone else; it is entirely possible that he or she did not mean it.

Do not blame the abuser for having prejudices - it will most likely force him or her to defend himself or herself, and he or she is unlikely to change his or her behavior in the long run.

Story one: focus on your reaction

Ben Brooks just came to work to one of the best consulting companies, and he and his senior colleague were talking on a conference call with the rest of the staff. In response to some words from Ben, his colleague said: "You’re such a gay!" Brooks was so shocked that he could not even say anything. "And this is the man I admired. He helped me get a job. He did not know that I was a homosexual, and seemed to treat this as something insignificant, but I immediately felt uneasy," recalls Ben. He left the office offended and angry, asking himself whether he had moved from one end of the country to another to be called gay at work.

After calming down, he went to his colleague next morning to discuss the situation. Having found the office empty, he left a note saying that they need to talk. When a colleague met him later, Ben began the conversation in a friendly manner: "I said that if I ever offend him, I want him to tell me honestly about it. He agreed". Ben explained that his colleague's remark upset him. "He immediately apologized, but somehow not too sincere," - recalls Ben. Then Ben took a deep breath and said that he was a homosexual. "When I explained to him how much I was offended by his words, he literally pressed himself into a chair with shame," says Ben. The colleague was depressed, asked with all his heart for forgiveness, and Ben forgave him.

"We all make mistakes and deserve to be given one more chance when we recognize our mistakes and apologize," says Ben. Now he works as general manager of PILOT, a start-up that helps managers retain their talented employees. Ben and a former colleague still maintain friendly relations. "I'm sure he will never call anyone gay anymore," Brooks said.

Story two: do not make accusations

Daniel Wagner (names and some details changed), co-owner of the company specializing in finding top managers in New York, was working for more than a year with Carol, the founder of a youth educational organization. In the process of advising on hiring leaders, he was often puzzled by Carol’s certain comments and requests. For example, one day she wrote a letter to his employees and asked to find the candidates’ photo to understand how they look. She also asked them to determine the age of applicants. After one meeting, Carol noticed that the interviewee "was dressed as if she was a Baptist." Another time, when discussing an African American candidate, she expressed a concern that the color of her skin could prevent people from taking her seriously.

All this time, Daniel tried to speak directly and honestly with Carol. "As a senior in the team, I constantly tried to improve the situation myself, before she embarrassed herself," he recalls. For example, when she asked for inappropriate information about candidates, he replied: "We do not require this information because we do not base our decision on it. We focus on knowledge and skills. " And when she asked for photos, he said: "Please do not ask us about it again. This will not work".

At the same time, he never accused her of racism or other prejudices: "I did not want to make judgments about her intentions or moral qualities ... My parents sometimes make such comments, so I know that good people sometimes act inappropriately."

Carol's reaction was different. Sometimes she denied that she said something insulting, and said: "I guess you misunderstood me." Sometimes Carol apologized. But it seems that over time, Daniel's efforts were rewarded with success. "Now she says less offensive words," Daniel admits. "It has become much better."