Q One of my co-workers has a habit of using insulting comments and behavior that she aims at others based on factors like ethnicity or religion. I'm very uncomfortable with this; what can I do?
A Insulting behavior and comments that are aimed at co-workers are never good manners or good policy, and sometimes, if extreme enough, tip into the legal minefield of creating a hostile work environment.
The inner game
Situations like these create a lot of tension. Silence may feel like complicit agreement, while speaking up may seem inflammatory. Clarify what your ideal handling of these situations would be. What type of response would give you the greatest feeling of having done the right thing?
Also consider what holds you back from responding. It may be fear of conflict or being unsure of what to say. Knowing your barriers to action will help you plan appropriate responses.
Consider the possible motivations of the person. More specifically, assess whether there is negative intent or if she is just uninformed. This is not to excuse inappropriate behavior, but to help you best gauge and deal with it.
Assess the environment as a whole. Is this person a reflection of your broader organization, or out of sync with the culture? Determine who may be of similar mind with you; also, look into organizational policy on the issue.
The outer game
First, about the issue of a hostile work environment. Understanding the legalities of this is beyond the scope of this column. Suffice to say that, if extreme enough, this may be an area that you or others would want to explore.
Assuming, however, that you want to be better prepared to prevent or respond to this behavior, start by listing the situations that have occurred. Then plan the response you'd like to have if it happens again. For example, you might want to have statements like, "that's an awfully broad statement to make about a whole group of people" or "you aren't speaking for all of us on that." While not provocative, statements like these are clear. Be prepared to leave situations as a statement of your position, if appropriate, or avoid situations with that person.
Depending on your relationship with this co-worker, you may want to chat privately with her to let her know the effect her comments have on you, and your concern about the message it sends to others.
It's hard to feel like you're alone with these concerns, so find a way to get support from others. Not to say that you should gang up on her, but it may make a difference if she knows that she is out of step with others. You may also want to talk with your boss about the best way to handle it.
These steps will also send a message to co-workers from the backgrounds being insulted, letting them know that this is not a prevailing belief. Building friendly working relationships, if you don't already have them, also would reinforce a welcoming environment.
The last word
Confronting comments like these is an individual action that can make a positive difference. Readers, what have you done in these situations?