4 Ways to Deal With Offensive Coworkers

We’ve all probably experienced that moment in the office where a coworker says something that is out of line and even offensive. Perhaps he or she has commented on the way you dress or speak. You may be wondering what the appropriate action is in this uncomfortable situation. What do you even say? Should you even respond?

Consider these tips when you are faced with such a situation:

  • Think before you say anything and maintain self-control. You don’t want the situation to escalate. Take a few moments to sort through your thoughts and emotions. When you feel like you are in an appropriate state, then you can address the issue. You want to make sure you are choosing the right time and place to give your feedback. Always take the high road, and never respond with an equally offensive comment.
  • Be empathetic. This may seem like the last thing you’d want to do, but it may help to try and understand where the offensive comment is coming from. While it is never okay to insult someone, the offender may be dealing with something personal and this is how they cope. Consider the saying, “Kill them with kindness.” Try and turn the tables by asking them what’s wrong and if there’s a reason for what they just said.
  • Be assertive. If the person actively seeks you out, standing up to him or her will help bring attention to the issue and force him or her to face you, directly. For some, confrontation can be an uncomfortable and scary experience. But, it is necessary. Acknowledge the situation in an assertive manner and address him or her directly. Some possible ways to begin this conversation include:
    • Hey—I heard you saying ____. I know you may not realize it, but what you said was offensive. I would appreciate it if you refrained from saying it in the future.
    • A lot of people don’t like that you keep saying ____. Can you please stop?
    • You need to stop saying _____. It’s offensive and will not be tolerated here.
  • Talk to others. Sometimes, it isn’t enough to confront the offender. If something a coworker said bothered you, it is quite possible it offended others as well. Also, you may find yourself focused on the comment, rather than the work you need to do. Don’t internalize the negative thoughts. Instead, be proactive. By talking to other coworkers about the issue, you can get a second voice and decide what the next step is so you’re not alone. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone in the office, Workbravely.com is a website that connects employees with trusted experts who can give neutral, independent guidance, without needing to know about the company you work for.

Always remember, you should never feel like you have to keep working in a hostile environment. If the problem persists, you may need to take more serious actions, such as speaking to HR or a supervisor. Make sure you are truthful and accurately detail the events that led up to the comment.

Check out 5 Clues for Understanding Difficult Co-Workers and How to Positively Address Sexist Comments at Work for more tips.

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S. Bridges

While much of the advice given in this article is worthwhile, I strongly disagree with two suggestions here. First, when you’re confronting someone about something that person has said that you found offensive, it is very inappropriate to say something like, “A lot of people don’t like that you….” Even if you have discussed the situation with others, you are not in a position to speak for anyone but yourself. Second, if something offends you “talk[ing] to others” about it is not a good strategy for dealing with the situation. Doing so can easily and quickly escalate the situation and create unnecessary office gossip and drama. If you need to talk to someone other than the person who has offended you, choose *ONE* person you trust completely and talk to that one person about the situation for advice. Then go to the person with whom you having the conflict and deal with the situation.

Lucy Sears

Thank you for your insights! You made a good point about the importance of not speaking for everyone else. Also, I suggested “Talking to others,” as a means of acquiring moral support, but you have a good point that it could only create unneeded drama. The degree/scale of the offensive remark should also be taken into account. Because each scenario is very different–and of course subjective–these tips may not necessarily be appropriate for every single situation. Thank you again, I appreciate your feedback!

Steven Brooks

Great blog, although from much past experience I would caution people about the “talking to others” part. In my experience, this leads to gossiping and plugs them into the “rumor mill”. It also opens the door for other negative individuals to view them as allies. I would only do this when assertiveness and direct, non-confrontational discussions with the individual who offended them has occurred and not been successful in stopping the behavior. Most people, when confronted, are extremely apologetic and the behavior stops immediately.

Lucy Sears

This is very true! Most people mean well and don’t intend to be offensive. Talking to others could definitely stoke the fire, so people should consider who they speak to (and definitely not with the whole office!) Thank you for your feedback!


What happens when the offensive person is your supervisor? And the next person in chain of command just wants to make retirement?

Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Dan, that is a great question. I was in that position at one point. It wasn’t always easy, but I did my best to maintain my composure and not allow the supervisor’s offensiveness to change my character. Matching his offensiveness with offensiveness just wasn’t me. What helped me through was self-care. It was vital. I made it a point to do things that made me happy both at work and outside of work. I prayed for my boss. I also confided in people close to me (not on the job) who could give me sound advice and encouragement. When I felt the time was right and I was able to have a thoughtful conversation with my boss, I did. It was not easy. He was not the most approachable person, and I was concerned about any repercussions. But my peace of mind and health were on the line. I made clear that my goal was to be a solid team member and make the team look good, including him. But there were challenges in meeting those objectives. I was honest and respectful when talking to my boss about particular interactions I had with him and the challenges those created. Having that conversation actually improved the relationship with my boss. I think he respected the fact that I came to him to have a critical conversation that is often avoided to “keep the peace.”