Confronting Prejudicial Comments in the Workplace

The same day that the right wing terrorist invaded the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC and killed a security guard, my girl friend encountered a much more prosaic form of anti-Semitism. And while her experience was not in any way life-threatening, nonetheless her casual if not commonplace encounter merits documentation and its expression deserves confrontation. D. works part-time at a local plant nursery in a semi-rural community about 30 miles east of Cleveland. Most of her co-workers are women ranging in age from the 20s to the 60s. Overall, they work well together. The group was celebrating a colleague’s birthday and slices of cake were being passed around in circular fashion. A young woman, I will call K., with a definite rural upbringing, found herself with a piece of cake noticeably smaller than the previous offering. Suddenly, with a mix of matter of fact and frustration, the aggrieved party announces that, “Hey, I’ve been Jewed down.”

No one made a comment, though later several of the women expressed shock at the blatant prejudicial stereotyping. A couple of the women are Jewish, including my girlfriend. D.’s mother, born in Germany, escaped the Nazi madness at the 11th hour. Some of her family members were not so fortunate and perished at the concentration camps. So there’s added poignancy to her pain.

Later that evening, D. recounted the above events and also noted that the young woman’s mother, a manager in the nursery, is known to make disparaging comments about various ethnic groups. Sure sounds like the proverbial acorn falling near the dis-eased tree. Nonetheless, D. had decided she wanted to say something to K. Talking out loud, D. quickly spoke of how the woman had “made me upset,” had “hurt my feelings” and that she “felt disrespected.”

The Confrontations

I immediately had a visceral reaction. I fairly shouted, “Stop being a victim.” I proceeded to emphasize the importance of letting go of “you made me upset” or “you hurt my feelings” as such phrasing gives way too much power to this callow youth and makes D. seem overly sensitive. Better to say, “I was angry” by the “Jewed down” comment. I encouraged D. to basically convey that, “Your remarks are not only prejudicial, but ignorant and disrespectful as well.”

D. quickly appreciated the difference in approaches, and was ready to discard the victim role. Initially, D. said she wanted K. to really feel “embarrassed.” I had mixed feelings about using that as her motivation. While I could understand D.’s frustration, I reiterated my focus in such a situation: to let the person know he or she has violated my boundary as a human being, and I want the individual to know my anger, to know what I don’t like and why. Yes, I want them to be uncomfortable, maybe even anxious. But embarrass can easily be a code word for “humiliate” which means “to lower,” and synonyms are “to demote” and “to disgrace.” And to my way of thinking, that kind of sentiment is too close to having an intention similar to the initial prejudicial comment.

D. mulled over my remarks. With her basic sensitivity, I knew D. did not wish to push the young woman’s face in the mud. The next day, D. waited till K. was alone, and then said she wanted to talk to her about yesterday’s party. More specifically, “I was angry when you said you’d been ‘Jewed down’ over the piece of cake.” As D. had predicted, the young woman initially got defensive, nervously saying she, “didn’t mean anything by it. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s just an expression all my friends use.” (In some ways, this is the most disheartening revelation. The casual stereotyping, that just slides off the tongue without any forethought: the prejudicial assumption that becomes an unquestioned axiom and everyday expression.)

D. quickly replied, “You didn’t hurt me. I was angry with your show of ignorance and disrespect.” Di told her that she and some others at work are Jewish. D. then asked her if she knew what the expression meant. K. said, “That Jews are cheap; they want to cheat you.”

D. then stated why the comment is so distasteful: “There are cheap individuals in all groups. But don’t label a whole group of people with that kind of prejudice and ignorance. And even if I wasn’t Jewish, it’s just being downright disrespectful…What if I called you a ‘hillbilly?’ Would you like that?”

The Unfinished Close

According to D., the young woman seemed to flinch and acknowledged that she wouldn’t like that. D. realized there was nothing left to say and walked away. (In an ideal world, perhaps D. might have closed the encounter with, “I do appreciate you listening.”) However, she didn’t make a point of avoiding or shunning K. the rest of the day. K. was still a colleague and D. needed to have a working relationship with her.

Upon returning to her work area, several of her colleagues somehow knew that D. had confronted K. and expressed their appreciation. However, what wasn’t discussed earlier or now was why people had not responded immediately to K.’s prejudicial remark. The women being initially startled accounts for some of the silent reaction, that is, the lack of head and heart responses. However, I believe another factor is at play: most of us don’t realize how toxic such comments are to the mind-body and moral and morale- sustaining atmosphere of a group or community. These days, people usually speak up when someone lights up a cigarette in a non-smoking area. We will have come a long way as a society when in similar fashion bystanders or team members set limits on and engage such prejudicial fodder.

Later that evening, D. wondered if she had made an impact with K. We agreed that it was hard to predict. But I supported D.’s comment that, “Maybe she’ll be just a little more uncomfortable when those around her resort to such stereotypes.” Amen and women to that! Thoughts to help us all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and “Motivational Humorist” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits and is AOL’s “Online Psychohumorist” ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite” — — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

Responses to the 6/15/09 posting of “Confronting Prejudicial Comments in the Workplace”

These were the responses to the essay, “Confronting Prejudicial Comments in the Workplace” received over the past 24 hours. As I wrote to one of the respondents, who in turn shared personal experiences with prejudice, “You’re so right, Walt. When it (prejudicial language) just “innocently” or “unawares” enters the language, that’s when it can be most difficult to confront. It’s like a silent virus; it doesn’t overtly kill the body, it just infects the mind, heart and soul. [I’ve decided on a new appellation to describe this casual, perhaps unconscious, use of prejudicial language — SBV: “Silent But Viral.”]

Hi Mark,

Thanks! I really like this and am going to share it if that’s okay with you.

Linda L. Fresh
EEO Special Emphasis Programs Specialist
Federal Women’s Program Manager
Department of Homeland Security
Headquarters Equal Employment Opportunity Office

On a similar note, I was on the phone with a guy once and when he quoted me a price that seemed too low for something, I was concerned that he was mistaken regarding what I was looking for. So, I quoted him the price I had typically paid to which he responded, “Whoever sold you those at that price must have had a lot Hebrew in him.” I literally couldn’t believe my ears and asked him to repeat, which he did with no shame. At this point, I politely told him that I was no longer interested in doing business with him and hung up. I’ve since regretted the lost opportunity to coach him on his ethnic bashing, but he certainly wasn’t going to get any of my money, even if his prices were a bargain! I did think, also, that he would have choice words for me, too, if he knew I was black! Thank goodness there is less bigotry to deal with now than when we were children, but it’s still out there. Walt

Great story, Mark! I abhor that particular epithet as well as another that’s in common usage, ‘gyp’. I explained to someone just the other day why that was inappropriate as it was a derogatory about Gypsies. In this case, the person truly wasn’t aware that the comment had ethnic origins, but it could still hurt nonetheless. Thanks for sharing this, Mark. Walt

Walter B. Sanderson, III
Vice President, Human Resources


This is a great article.

Senora Coggs
Senior Policy Advisor
Office of Civil Rights
U.S. Department of Commerce

Thank you, Mark! This is a good article. You’re right that so many of these comments go unchallenged, usually because of initial shock and then embarrassment, as if trying to protect the offender from him- or herself by not drawing attention to the comment. However, in the end, that does not do anyone a service. You did well in your coaching of your girlfriend. You are correct about not giving the assailant too much power by letting them know that they hurt you.

Dianne from NYC

Mark, you have such a gift. What wonderful lessons to be re-learned here. Thanks so much for sharing. I will definitely share.

Ellen Gray
Manager, Center of Business Excellence
No. Virginia Community College (NVCC)


Thanks for sharing. It reminded how easy it is to say something that is prejudicial, even about ourselves. My temper flared up the other day and I blamed it on my Irish great-grandfather rather than the issue at hand.

Thanks and have a wonderful day!

Jennie E. Barchet CPS/CAP
Administrative Assistant II
Bausch & Lomb Global Quality
1400 North Goodman Street
Rochester, New York 14609

Good morning Mark,

The best advice was to take away the thought of being the victim. It literally puts you in for the lack of a better word a lesser or lower position. It takes away the opportunity to make an impact on an individual and thus on a community. D became the teacher, the position of power. Knowledge is power right? D had the privilege & power of teaching another human being the value of another human being who is distinctly different. Each one teach one. Also, the attitude of the teacher is paramount. If you have a victim mentality you will teach from a victims perspective. If you have a teacher/power mentality you will teach a powerful lesson. On my way to work. Keep me posted. Have a fantastic day!


You are absolutely right, and you make me realise that I was a coward when, a few months ago, colleagues made cheap jokes about Christians in the workplace and I didn’t speak up. Someone had bought wedding favours to go on her daughter’s reception tables – models of Jesus and Mohammed. Everyone else thought this hilarious. I just found it sick. But all I could manage was, ‘Oh, Jane!’ in the appropriate tone of voice. I didn’t want to criticise her wedding plans. No-one stopped to think that I might have found the idea offensive – but so too might some of her guests.

Good for you for helping your girlfriend go back and confront the objectionable colleague the next day!

Karen McAulay

Mark, I lost 5 uncles and countless other relatives in Auschwitz — my father had 7 brothers, only 2 survived — the 5 others died in the arms of the 2 that survived. They were told not to eat too much when they were liberated, their stomachs would burst, and that is exactly what happened.

Mark — this will never end, not as long as we live.


Thank you for sending that article. It was both well-written and poignant. Meryl
I plan to share this with others.

Meryl Trachtman
Jewish Community Center
Rockville, MD 20895

Mark, This is great. Please place it on my Anger Management Group discussion on Linkedin. (Click here: LinkedIn: Anderson & Anderson Anger Management Providers of the United States: Start a Discussion)

George [email protected]

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