#395: Confronting offensive bosses and coworkers.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a dilemma that I suspect is quite common, but I’m still running into mental roadblocks as to how to properly approach it. Background: I’m a lesbian and a big-eff Feminist working in a male-dominated field, in a male-dominated company. I’ve worked marketing, event planning and PR for rape crisis centres, and volunteer on rape crisis support lines. I know a lot about anti-oppression and actively work on acknowledging my privilege and on calling people out when they’re being oppressive asshats. Except that’s not what I want to do at work. At work, I wanna focus on my interesting tech stuff and not feel I have to educate my boss and coworkers on racism and why and how they’re being fucking offensive.

My boss is a young-ish, laid-back, former hippy who’s travelled all over the world and loves to talk and thinks he knows everything about everything. A nice enough guy, but these topics he brings up at work are raising my blood pressure. And it doesn’t help I have 3 male coworkers who fall easily into the conservative end of the spectrum, so I’ve got no backup there. The lot of them could talk until they run out of breath, not really caring if they have a lick of knowledge about the subject. I mostly keep my mouth shut when he brings up touchy subjects, because I cannot be bothered to try to get into convos with people who won’t change their minds, have no investment in the topic, and will keep talking until I give up bc I’ve got other shit to do and my face is red and I just want them to STFU.

So, the question in all this, is how do I draft a nice, calm email to my boss about work-appropriate conversations and how his oft-racist verbal meanderings are contributing to a hostile workplace for me? I don’t wanna quit my job, I don’t want to go over his head to HR if I don’t have to, and I don’t want to be “the one who caused a scene” b.c., oh yeah, he’s also a huge gossip. Help?


Damsel in de tech

Dear Damsel:

I don’t think there is a snappy email that gets this done.

Dear Boss,

Please change your entire personality.



Even if you went with “don’t say so many racist things” or “try to keep workplace conversations more appropriate” you will run into the Hydra of Derailing Questions and Wounded Innocence. “Could you like, define every single word in every single sentence for me?” No one needs that.

I know you don’t want to have to go to Human Resources, but I think we should treat this LIKE a situation where you might have to go to HR. That way if you do have to go to HR, you are prepared. Also, your boss doesn’t have to know that you don’t want to or plan to go to HR, and the fear of that hassle might be a weapon in your arsenal in getting him to cool it.

This old post covers a lot of the steps of having uncomfortable conflicts with coworkers, and I think it might help you. To review some basic principles:

1. Review your company’s policy on harassment, language, what constitutes a hostile workplace. Know it backwards and forwards and keep it in reserve. Chances are it’s on your side, at least on paper.

2. Document everything.

3. Tighten up your game in case there is blowback. Be at work early, dress nicely, make sure your work is awesome, tidy up your work area. I’m sure your work is already awesome, but if you’re going to start pushing back at your boss about things you don’t want to give him anything to latch onto.

4. Polish your resume and start looking around for other opportunities. Even if you don’t want to leave, or don’t have to leave, it will make you feel less trapped if you know that you have other stuff going on.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize. You don’t have to change hearts and minds. You don’t have to help these guys achieve enlightenment. If you get them to stop saying these things around you or at work, you win.

6. Keep in mind that while you have been stewing about this problem, if you haven’t spoken up before now it’s not actually a problem that’s on your boss’s radar right now, so if you land on him like a ton of bricks with “I NEED YOU TO STOP BEING RACIST NOW, OK? HERE IS MY FOLDER OF EXAMPLES AND I AM PREPARED TO GET YOU FIRED” it is probably not going to have the result you want, even if he deserves that. The Derailing Hydra of Wounded Innocence is a hard beast to slay.

7. Recognize that dealing with this kind of fuckery head on takes a lot of energy, so be extremely nice and gentle to yourself and step up your self-care regimen. Take breaks, eat well, get enough sleep & downtime, hang out with only extremely awesome people outside of work, remove as many draining commitments from your life as you can.

I think you’re going to do best with a “Hey, Knock It Off” strategy at first. Speak up directly when the bad thing happens. And, while it is unfair that you should have to do this, I suggest that you work on becoming as affectless and robotic as possible when these topics come up.

Strategy #1:

Boss:Offensive thing.

You:That’s pretty offensive.” + [work question]


(shamelessly stolen from Carolyn Hax)

Wow.” + [beat of awkward silence] + [work question/innocuous topic change]


(this one is mine)

Awkward.” + [beat of awkward silence] + [work question/innocuous topic change]

Boss: [derailing word-vomit of questions like “What did I say that was offensive? Why is that offensive?“]

You:It’s _____ist and not appropriate for work. So, about work question…..

DO NOT ENGAGE him on the substance of why the thing is ______ist. Even if you’re correct, it’s not an argument you will win to your satisfaction or want to engage in. Just keep repeating, in the most boring, flat, monotone and trying to change the subject.

If he really pushes back at you, defer to his position as your boss. How would you suggest I respond when someone says something _____ist at work?

This is the magic question, right? Your boss sees himself as enlightened hippy world traveler guy who can’t possibly be racist/sexist because he’s read cool books and watched the sun rise over Angkor Wat. But seeing yourself as an awesome progressive isn’t a magic defense against your own privilege. Also, it’s his job to enforce company policies about harassment and hostile language and keep people (including himself) in line. This isn’t be your job at all! So put this problem explicitly on his plate, and get him on the record about how he thinks you should handle it. Document everything in case you need it later.

Strategy #2:

While you hear and understand work-related things just fine, you have contracted a mysterious malady that makes you unable to fully hear or understand offensive language and you need it repeated and explained.

Boss: “______ist thing.”

You: “Sorry, I didn’t catch that, what did you say?

Boss: [repeats]

You: “Huh? I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”

Boss: [repeats]

Hopefully somewhere in here, self-awareness about how bad he sounds kicks in, but probably not. He might just get tired of repeating it and change the subject himself. If you hear a “Ugh, never mind,” be happy: You have won! If you can get him to repeat the thing three times, give yourself a gold star.

You: “But I don’t understand. All _____ people are not like______. Whoa, do you really think that?

Him: (hopefully) “Ugh, never mind.”

If he doubles down on the ________ ism, there’s always “Wow. That’s really _____ist. We should probably change the subject, right?

And again, if he pushes back at you, pop the magic question: Okay, but how would you like me to respond when people say ____ist things to me at work?

Now, things might get uncomfortable in the short term. When you enforce a boundary you haven’t set before, even well-meaning people can get really weird about it. Sometimes they get embarrassed about their own behavior and take it out on you for making them uncomfortable. They see calling them out as a hostile act on your part, when actually, asking someone calmly and directly to stop doing an offensive thing is the most professional and chill way you can behave. You might get some version of the “But you didn’t say anything before, so it was okay before, so I thought we had an unspoken agreement that it would always be okay and now you’re ruining everything by changing the rules on me!” defense. If you get sucked into this logic, you start thinking that only boundaries that are set perfectly from the very beginning of a relationship count, which is, frankly, the stinky poop of of a cow and I have no patience for it.

I think the more comfortable you get with setting boundaries, the more comfortable you get when other people set them with you. You can hear “Hey, could you not do that one thing anymore?” as meaning “Hey, could you not do that one thing anymore?” (i.e., reality) and not “Hey, could you not do that one thing anymore YOU WORTHLESS PIECE OF SHIT THAT EVERYONE SECRETLY HATES?” (i.e.,massive projection) It takes some time and some practice to get more chill about this, and your boss may not be there yet.

So one way you can counteract this is to stay very focused in the present moment, but once you’ve spoken up for yourself and diffused the shitty situation, reset the clock on your interactions. If your boss is cool? You are friendly and cool. If your boss does something nice? Go out of your way to say thank you and let him know you appreciate it. If he apologizes for saying something? Say “Thank you, I really appreciate that.” Show him that you’re not a grudge-holder and that you are trying to keep things friendly.

Now, the “Hey, knock it off” strategy is going to either work after a few awkward weeks or it isn’t. If the bad behavior escalates and crosses over into harassment, the fact that you have a documented record of what’s been going on will become very useful. If you find yourself called into a meeting about your “attitude” or your “negativity,” use it as an opportunity to speak your piece.

Boss, you’re right, I have felt pretty down lately. I am sure that you and coworkers don’t intend to offend anyone, but you guys say a lot of stuff in the course of the day that is pretty hostile/racist/sexist. It’s been making me very uncomfortable for a long time, and I do think it’s interfering with how our team functions. I haven’t wanted to make an HR issue out of it, but I have started speaking up more when things cross the line. I want to have a good relationship with the rest of the team and be able to focus on work at work. How do you suggest we move forward in a constructive way?”

Because, again, as the boss, it’s his job to figure out how to manage the team so that you don’t have to work with your shoulders up around your ears. It’s his job to offer solutions and moderate his behavior and follow company policies.

I don’t think he is going to have any solutions for you, at least not right then. I think you are likely to get a giant dose of defensiveness, excuses, mansplaining, etc. So, pull out the magic question.

“When someone says something _____ist at work, how do you suggest I respond?

You are asking a totally reasonable question and secretly he’s going to know that you’re in the right, so hold onto it and keep asking it.  From what you’ve described, chances are that he’s going to want you to just shut up and ignore it. But he can’t SAY that, or, he has just enough self-awareness to know that he shouldn’t actually say that. I mean he can say that, and then you can document the shit out of it, and then you can have a really uncomfortable conversation with HR where you lay out the following points:

  • My boss and coworkers say offensive stuff that makes this a hostile work environment for me.
  • I asked them directly and nicely to change the subject back to work topics.
  • They didn’t.
  • I met with my boss and repeatedly asked for his suggestions for how to deal with this constructively.
  • He pressured me to ignore it.
  • What do you suggest I do? I am a very productive and valuable employee, and I don’t want to work in a hostile situation where people feel free to make _____ist comments.

I’m hoping that this approach will get you some results. It seems way harder than sending the perfect email (or, honestly, just going straight to HR and saying “this is a problem, how should we fix it?”), and it will take more time and energy than you probably want to spend, but if you put the time in you just may cut down on the asinine statements/hour ratio.

What say you, readers? Have you ever gotten someone to stop saying offensive things around you at work? What did you say to them? How did they respond?

97 thoughts on “#395: Confronting offensive bosses and coworkers.

  1. Just one point, from the perspective of a former employment lawyer (in the U.S.): generally speaking, at least under federal law, one only has “standing” to make a legal claim based on “hostile work environment” if you are in the group the jerk is being anti-. So, unfortunately, if you’re a straight white woman, for example, you would be able to claim discrimination based on a “hostile work environment” if your colleagues were constantly making sexist jokes, but if they were making racist or homophobic jokes, you wouldn’t be able to sue on that basis no matter how true (and reasonable) it was that you found that environment toxic to you. (Yeah, I know that sucks, but it’s just one of those sucky-but-true things). State law (esp. case law) may vary enough to make that not an absolute, but you don’t want to go in guns blazing thinking you have the law at your back when you don’t… Check before you take the tone of “this is illegal,” because it gets people’s backs up, so you don’t want to go there if its not true.

    1. Really solid call. I think you should almost never say “this is illegal” about stuff like this at work. If things are so bad that it needs to go to the legal action place, making threats to sue tips too much of your hand. The news should come from your actual lawyer when and if you actually sue. Until that happens, you’re just a reasonable person trying to do your job and you wish that the company would please do the right thing by their stated policies and help you out. 🙂

      1. That’s a great rule of thumb! I can’t tell you how many times I’d get calls from a potential client in which they would describe their employer’s egregiously assholish behavior and then say something along the lines of “and I told him he can’t do that and he’d be hearing from my attorney, etc. etc. etc.,” which made it suck all the more to have to say “Actually, that’s not actionable. Yeah, it’s unfair and rotten, but employment law does not address every form of horrendous behavior and it doesn’t cover that one.” Because they’d already seriously damaged their bridges by then — nothing toasts a working relationship quite like the threat of a lawsuit.

        So: make a reasonable effort to call the problem to your employer’s attention and see if they’ll fix it voluntarily. Meanwhile, document your ass off (print e-mails, make dated notes of conversations, with direct quotes and the identity of any witnesses, record conversations if it’d be legal in your jurisdiction). Keep all that stuff at home, not in your desk or on your company-owned computer.

        And if it’s bad enough you think it’s time to start invoking statutes and cases, contact an attorney about the viability of a lawsuit and how to proceed before you say a word to your employer about lawsuits. (Oh, if you’re in the U.S. you might want to make a call to the nearest EEOC office (see eeoc.gov) before calling an attorney. They can give you a better idea of whether you’ve got a case; sometimes they can work with an employer on your behalf, and having the EEOC on your side can be HUGE in terms of leverage (and getting an attorney to take your case)). If it’s not a discrimination issue, it’s a not-paying-overtime kind of thing or something like that, you want the Department of Labor.

    2. The EEOC allows complaints from “bystanders”. So even if I, a white person, am not the target of racial harassment, I am affected as a bystander when he harasses my black co-worker.

      I wouldn’t bring up the EEOC until it’s time to actually file with them, but I would use the bystander argument with management. It affects the entire team when one person harasses another person.

      1. Wouldn’t you still need a black person to be harassed, though? It sounds more like there’s no Foo people in the group, and so they say nasty things about Foos. If there’s no Foo to be harmed, then I can’t be a bystander, right?

        1. I believe that’s the case. But the real thing is that this can NOT become the legal advice column. Oh, no no! I tried to stay general enough to avoid that pitfall, but it seems to be reaching up and grabbing me by the ankle anyway. Best leave it that folks need to contact the EEOC with their specific tale of woe and get up to the minute, jurisdiction-specific advice!

        2. “I am affected as a bystander *when he harasses my black co-worker.*”

          This is not legal advice. Do look up EEOC regulations on your own. Do not bring them up at work until filing a case is the only option left. Don’t do it then, either. Let the EEOC do their job.

  2. “Hey, dude, that was your out-loud voice” is my favorite. Or “awkwardface”. (Uh. I speak in emoticons, like “sadface”, “happyface!”.) I try not to use any of these more than once a month, though – I like minimizing the weird, uncomfortable interactions. I don’t need to remind them too often that I’m Other.

    1. when ever someone says something along the lines of “well you know what they say about that {minority group}” I find it enormously helpful to say “no, what?” and have this really confused look on my face. To this day nobody has decided to enlighten me as to what they say.

      1. It really is incredible how powerful “playing clueless” can be. I did it on Facebook recently and it’s sort of amazing. Nobody ever wants to clarify.

        1. It can be helpful when someone’s giving backhanded compliments or disguised insults, too – I used to know a woman who would give people sarcastic compliments as part of a subtle put-down campaign to try and make herself look better – I always beamed and thanked her like she was being sincere instead of sniping back, and then she’d get really embarrassed because it made her seem really nasty for no reason at all. It really derailed her when I didn’t get into competition, but just accepted her words like they were genuine. It really highlighted what she was doing.

          1. I like the idea of a beaming, “well, aren’t you just the sweetest thing to say so!?” Leaving it to her and the other listeners to answer that question for themselves.

          2. Oooh, I started doing this to my incredibly backhanded relatives. It works like a charm. Eventually, by taking people at their word and not their meta-message, the toxic messaging stumbles and halts.

      2. Absolutely. When my coworkers would say something homophobic or racist in a joking manner, I’d say “What? I don’t get it…” and then everyone went into awkward silence and the conversation ended. Worked like a charm. It didn’t stop them from being assholes but it I didn’t feel so helpless in the moment.

  3. Um, well one time a bunch of us, male and female (myself being female), managers and floor workers were all playing hackey sack at break, and the bag hit one woman in the crotch, she booted to the next guy who caught it in the face, and he shouted out “Ugh, smells like bitch!” and all the guys laughed, including the managers. The rest of us just rolled our eyes in embarrassment.

    After the break, I went up to him, got in his face and said “Don’t ever talk like that around here again,” and went back to work. Mind you, he was bigger than me, older than me, and had some considerable seniority over me.

    It never happened again, none-the-less I do *not* recommend that approach lol……

    1. Good on you. Until very recently, if I’d been that woman I would likely have gone home and cried and eventually quit the job without saying a word (which is how I’ve always handled sexist bullying at work before). People like you are giving me the courage to find my own voice to stick up for myself.

      1. This was 20 years ago, and these days I generally try a more surgical approach rather than weighing in with a hatchet. But we have to have each others’ back; the implied approval of behavior like that is so insidious, and I’m still saddened at how little people who are implied rather than direct victims support each other when it happens. Speaking up for someone else has a way of instilling courage and empowerment in oneself : ) And it means you’re on the lookout for it rather than waiting for it to fall on your own head.

  4. A thought: the impression I have from your letter is it seems like maybe part of the problem is long, drawn-out monologues from your boss, rather than a bunch of short racist/sexist comments, so maybe in those situations the “repeat it three times” scenario or the “wow … silence” scenario won’t work?

    Instead, maybe practice in general derailing off-work discussion? Skilling up at interrupting like you think he is done after his opening where you can see where it’s going (“this tuna sandwich reminds me of the time I motor biked along the Great Wall of China. the thing about the Chinese is….”) depending on the situation, you can have a work question ready to go to derail, or maybe even a tech-related news item you just saw. “Oh hey, that reminds me did you see the article in Wired about….”

    Anyways, good luck!

  5. Recently I was having a conversation with this guy who volunteers at my work. He’s always been kind of sexist in a way I haven’t been able to engage with, really, and in this conversation he told me an extremely racist AND sexist joke. I responded by laughing and saying “that’s so racist!” and I really don’t know if that was the right way to handle it, especially with the laughing, but I didn’t want to come off too severe (I’m a young lady and he’s an older dude). I did say it loud enough that it hopefully embarrassed him.

    I don’t think I handled my version quite well enough, and in the future (at least with this guy) I’m planning on an awkward laugh, a “wow,” and a subject change. Given that your guy is your boss, probably you want to concentrate a little less on the social shame than I did.

    1. Someone mentioned this or something similar upthread so I’m not super original or anything, but I wanted to highlight it because it’s worked well for me in the past. I usually pretend I know nothing about any sort of stereotype, so the humor is lost on me. So I’ll act confused or say “I don’t get it” and sort of make them either retreat or explain the joke. The second option is good because then you can say, in a puzzled voice, “I didn’t know that there was a stereotype that women are bad drivers” or “that’s weird, I know plenty of women who drive just fine, and a lot of men who have gotten some bad tickets.” Basically I approach it as forcing them to acknowledge that their sexist (etc.) joke relied on wrong and offensive stereotypes and stripping the humor from it. At the very least, they won’t want to make offensive jokes around you anymore!

  6. I think this is all really good advice, especially the part about deferring to him on what you should do when someone makes ____ist comments. First of all, it is his job to handle things like that, and asking him what you should do forces him to think about it without you saying, “Hey, boss, thinking about this stuff is your job so please do it!” Second, it lets him know that you haven’t forgotten that he’s your boss. He might get defensive if he thinks you’re trying to tell him what to do, and this shows him that you aren’t doing that. And third, your boss might appreciate it because he sees himself as open-minded and well-versed in not-being-oppressive. I’ve found that some self-described open-minded people can really shut down when people call them on any kind of oppressive or discriminatory behaviour. I think their thought process goes, “I have opened my mind all the way and it cannot possibly be opened any more than it is. Therefore anyone who calls any of my behaviour bigoted in any way must be unreasonable.” So again, by asking him what you should do in response to ____ist comments might help him re-think his behaviour without making him think you’re being unreasonable.

    So, yeah, I guess I don’t have any advice to add. Just my thoughts on why the Captain’s advice rocks.

  7. I would suggest using this trick that a communications professor once taught me: Use I language instead of You language. It’s something that gets tossed around a lot in regards to personal relationships but it works in just about any type of confrontation because it comes across as less accusatory.

    For example: ‘You saying -ist things makes me uncomfortable.’ sounds more accusatory than ‘When I hear you say -ist things, it makes me uncomfortable.’ You’re still getting your point across – that your boss/coworkers are saying those things, and it makes you uncomfortable, but you’re doing it in a way that’s less likely to get their backs up, and more likely to leave them at least a bit more open to hearing you out.

    It’s not a guaranteed thing, there are some people it doesn’t work on and depending on how tense things are between you and everyone else it may be too late for it…but it’s worth a try since it might keep things from getting too heated too fast.

    1. Yep, I’ve seen that strategy backfire horribly. On naturally kind people, it works like a charm, but if the person you’re talking to is more invested in winning than caring about your hurt feelings, framing the problem that way can give them extra ammunition to argue that the problem is your attitude/you being too sensitive, rather than the things they say being inappropriate and them needing to change. (But then again, that reaction might in turn give the LW more ammunition for a HR visit.)

      1. If the LW records it, it probably could be since most companies tend to frown on dismissing concerns that could affect an employee’s performance – and if comments like that are against policy [which they should be in most major companies], it’d put something in the OP’s ammunition pile. Like CA said, it’s the manager’s job to make sure things run smoothly, and if they *know* something is going on that is making it difficult for an employee to do their job then the manager isn’t doing their own job if they dismiss it.

      2. Honestly, I’ve seen the I-statements backfire more than I’ve seen it help.

        By which I mean, the cases where it worked, both parties were basically decent people speaking the same social-language, wanting the situation to be resolved without hurting the other. It worked because it was people explaining how they felt to somebody who didn’t get it, but wanted to.

        In cases where it didn’t, sometimes it was read as passive-aggressive, sometimes it was taken as basically the person admitting that the problem, sometimes it was read as them being very egocentric. “Well I’m sorry you feel like that, but maybe you need to work on X.” “Maybe you need to stop thinking about yourself the whole time!” “It’s always about you, isn’t it?”

        The bottom line is, it’s not a cheat-code. It doesn’t work if you’re speaking different social-languages.

        1. Yeah, I am also not a fan of the I statement. Partly because it can very easily turn into ‘I am very sensitive and you should accomodate that’ rather than the more legitimate ‘this thing you are doing is uncool and hurtful, stop’. It is worth a try in some situations, though.

        2. I agree. I’ve only been successful with I-statements when it’s someone I am worried about making more defensive than they already are. If it’s someone who is going to bulldoze me, then straightforward is better. “YOU need to stop talking to me like that.” Or whatever. Self centered people (including me) need wake up calls,. Politely reminding them to think about others doesn’t work…because they don’t care. But, unless they are actually enjoying causing emotional distress, pointing out bluntly that they are causing it usually works.

          My comment box is all wonky I hope this is working because I can only read the top half of the letters.

          1. Can I just say that this little subthread here has been super helpful to me? I just had a completely unexpected friendsplosion happen, and within just days of being away from the person, I had realized, holy shit, that person is a toxic clean-up site, I feel so much better not putting my face in that glowing sludge pond and trying to breathe anymore. But I still have all these residual “what happened” and “maybe if I had said” and “is my radar *that* off?” and “I thought we were friends?” kind of feelings and THIS is really clarifying a lot of it for me.

            I’m a big fan of I-statements, and I know they’re not for everybody, and I know they don’t work with, like, Racist Stranger Who is Racist On The Bus, but I’ve never had the experience of them not working with somebody who is presumably a friend. And I think I get to throw myself a little party that this is the first “surprise! I’m not your friend, I’m not even friendly, and I despise your fundamental self!” I’ve had in a long, long time, instead of doing what I’ve been doing the last week or so, thinking to myself, “What’s wrong with you that you didn’t see this coming?” What’s right with me is that I usually have awesome people around me, and I forget what it’s like to navigate the shitheels.

            But what you guys have been saying about this only working with people who speak the same social language, and Beenie, especially what you said about “unless they are actually enjoying causing emotional distress”… I just WOW. BOOM. Got it. This person really seemed to enjoy the emotional distress, felt like that meant hir arguments were *working* and *right*, and got all kinds of smug at the confused wounded clean-up that happened after, where zie got to be the kind understanding one.

            I gave that person a lot of benefit of the doubt, that if I said “I’m really not okay with the way this conversation is going, it’s not something I can handle hearing about,” and they bulldozed through, it was because, you know, they knew me and loved me and didn’t get/think it was hurting me that much and were passionate and felt like this was a really important topic for them. Instead of stripping out that benefit of the doubt and viewing the logic of the situation as it actually was: Zie says something they must know will be provoking and hurtful to me, I tell them it’s hurtful, zie continues doing it until I’m an emotional mess, I apologize for being an emotional mess because shit when did that happen, I’m usually not like this, zie graciously decides to stop provoking me because zie understands I just am not strong enough to have this argument. Causing emotional distress and coming out on top was always the point, never whatever the bullshit argument was about.

            I just… hooooooooo, cleansing breath, guys, that put a few of those friendship post-mortem confusion clouds to rest.

      3. Perhaps the answer is neither You nor I, but objective: “That kind of thing is simply not acceptable in a professional workplace these days.” You can add “Even if everyone seems ok with it, it can really come back to bite the company on the butt down the line, so let’s just not.”

        1. This:
          “That kind of thing is simply not acceptable in a professional workplace these days.”
          is awesome. But this:
          “Even if everyone seems ok with it, it can really come back to bite the company on the butt down the line, so let’s just not.”
          I worry might be perceived as a threat, so I maybe wouldn’t add that. Maybe that’s just me though?

          1. My thinking is that the tone would be “I’m concerned about the company’s well-being in this litigious world,” rather than “and it’ll be my choppers in the corporate backside…” but that is, as always, an individual judgment call.

    2. I myself use I-language kind of like that. “This makes me uncomfortable because it reminds me of ______-ism.” Because then you’re not calling someone ________-ist, you’re just pointing out the similarities.

      Like, “Yeah, that anecdote about your ex-wife sounds really frustrating! But I dunno. Sitting here talking about how a woman is all irrational and shrill just makes me feel like I’m talking with my sexist uncle. I’m gonna go now.” Or, “Yeah, Obama is a really powerful speaker. But sometimes I feel like if you focus too much on how eloquent he is, you run the risk of being like one of those racist people who goes, ‘Oh my god, a smart black person! Take pictures, because you’ll never see one again!’ and maybe even end up backhandedly insulting all the intelligent black people who do use black slang.”

      1. I really like this! I have used a similar approach to head off unproductive or gross arguments at the pass — something like “I feel like discussions that start off about [most innocuous possible description of topic] always end up with everybody yelling and mad at each other, so let’s just drop it.” Kind of allows the other person to hear you blaming yourself (“Oh, Elsajeni just can’t handle discussions about [thing]”), even if what you really mean is “You are being a jackass and need to stop.”

      2. I like your approach.

        There is a big difference between saying someone is a __ist and saying that the thing they said sounded __ist. The latter tends to get their back up less, even if the former is true.

        Another great technique, I think from the awesome Carolyn Hax, is to say “Gosh if someone didn’t know you like I do, when you said that they might think you were __ist!”

        And then there’s always Uncomfortable face, eyebrows high, and no response. You just kinda look at them and patiently wait for them to to finish laughing and realize they’ve made a social faux pas. No feedback whatsoever, just look, long pause, then topic change. The key is to make them realize, by making it awkward socially, that they’re embarrassing themselves and you’ve politely changed the topic to spare them from further social humiliation. Which is what you’re actually doing.

        Small minds. Worst thing about having to interact with people not of your choice. Good luck.

      3. I’ve had some success with something like “You know, when you say stuff like that, people might think you’re being racist. Of course I know that you’re not, but people who don’t know you might take it badly.” It doesn’t actually make them any less racist, but it may make them think twice about expressing it.

        1. I like this kind of reply, like you’re reminding someone that they are better than that. An exchange I appreciated
          Person A said “Isn’t Obama an Arab?”
          Person B responds “Oh, Person A, you’re smarter than that.”

          I understand this is condescending & would not work in all situations. (A and B were family.) But I liked that it was indirect & non-confrontational, and the sideways compliment, implying that you think they are a good person who knows better.

  8. It’s not quite a work situation, but here’s a personal anecdote:

    At my college, foreign language classes have mandatory weekly conversation hours. These groups are informal and led by other (paid) students. My conversation leader has a nasty habit of calling things “gay” inappropriately and making gay “jokes”. Each time he does it, it totally distracts me from the rest of the meeting, and I’d much rather be working on my Italian than sitting there thinking, “seriously?”

    So last meeting after he did it yet again, I stayed after class and approached him. My script was:

    “This isn’t the first time you’ve used gay in a derogatory way, and every time you do it makes me really uncomfortable.”

    That was it. I didn’t expand on all the reasons why it made me uncomfortable, I just let it be awkward. And it was. It wasn’t fun at all. But after floundering through several half-hearted excuses he settled on, “I will try to be more aware of it. I… really need to stop saying that.”

    I focused on what I was feeling, and I let him come up with the solution instead of starting with a demand. I think people, especially people one sees on a regular basis, are in general more likely to react to that personal and specific “wow, I’ve been making this person feel like crap” than they are to anything that feels even remotely like a lecture.

  9. LW, please disregard this if it’s a derail, but I kind of get the impression from your letter that this is something you sort of feel obligated to do? As in, you actually can handle it but you feel a lot of guilt about letting this kind of toxic stuff go unchecked in your hearing? (I think I hear this in your letter, whether rightly or wrongly, because I can be a lot like that: as in, I am a straight white woman and I much prefer dealing with sexist than racist/homophobic comments because the sexist ones don’t give me guilt after for days for not HULKSMASHing more convincingly). If that is the case, I think it can be also a time to let yourself off the hook: it sounds like you are doing a lot in your spare time to try to dismantle the kyriarchy/jerkcircle, you do have to work and eat, these things are terribly hard to change all by yourself and especially when you are one woman in a sea of conservative-leaning men. Anyway, if this is irrelevant, please disregard.

    Also, just a quick story about confronting an office-mate: after a pretty ugh-inducing Islamophobic (with a hint of brown-men-and-their-rapacious-sexuality thrown in for good measure) comment I summoned all my awkward powers and said: “Why do you say that?”
    At first it was very disheartening, because like Moby in the link she really doubled down on it. BUT: four months or so later, nary another word on the topic. So, sometimes it feels like it’s going really bad even when it’s working. I’ll be crossing my fingers for you.

    1. Agreed. It’s not your LW’s job to turn the entire world into a safe space all by herself.

      Given that the other workplaces she’s familiar with through volunteering have very different cultures, and with good reason, discussion by people outside the SJ world can be very jarring. There is so much -ism-ing out there that you can’t beat yourself up for letting most of it slide in order to get through your day.

    2. I had a similar thought. Yeah, it’s an unpleasant situation, but LW doesn’t have to fix everything. Probably she can’t. I hear her saying her blood pressure is up and it’s stressful, and I get that, but if she doesn’t feel up to educating all the idiots of the world, that’s okay too.

  10. As a former HR workerling and someone who has had to go to HR variously, I just want to reassure the LW that going to HR is a totally acceptable solution, whether you talk to your boss first or not. Obviously if you can handle it without HR great, I totally understand that urge, but sometimes you just CAN’T, for whatever reason, and that’s a big part of why HR is there. They’re used to running interference in uncomfortable situations even if there’s no disciplinary action or whatever that has to occur.

    1. They so are! I have a skin condition that causes me to shed, and the cleaning staff were like “WTF?”

      The HR lady was like “Okay I Have An Awkward Conversation To Have” and was pretty good with it. I got a chance to reassure them that it’s safe, if kind of icky; she asked if there was anything the company could do to help (I haven’t figured anything out); and I got a heads-up to at least try to shed less, or something. (I’m like a somewhat gross cat. Shedders gonna shed.)

      I personally have very little shame on this topic, but I appreciated how she was the go-between and how respectful she was (and also how she started with reassuring me that this has nothing to do with my performance!). That was a good interaction with an HR lady.

      I’ve had negative interactions with HR ladies and gentlemen, though; a few companies ago the HR gentleman was a jerk and on the wrong side of the great divide happening in the company. In retrospect he was in a terrible position, but at the time we thought he was an evil tool of the jerk who was destroying the company. I could never have gone to him with concerns about -ist stuff going on. (incidentally, we were right about who was destroying the company, but we were wrong about blaming the guy personally for the position he was in. Anyone who could have been hired into that position at that time would have been equally bad, I think.)

      So whether going to HR feels okay sometimes depends on the company. And the possibility of less-than-stellar HR staff is part of why documentation is so important.

      1. I hear you about the awkward personal hygiene conversations! When I was on a fire crew with guys who took pride in seeing who could go the longest without laundering their dirty, ash-sweat-smoke-dust saturated shirts, my squad boss once had a very awkward conversation with me about complaints that I was smelly. Given the whole-boys-are-gross-aren’t-we-great atmosphere, I hadn’t bothered regulating my flatulence, but apparently girl-stink was beyond the line. Yeah, they used to make lots of sexually charged comments too, but some of them didn’t like it when I could out-do them in double entendres too.

    2. And sometimes when HR people find out what some twit has been running around doing/saying despite their having drafted and implemented all the right policies and had all the right training sessions they are genuinely aghast that it happened and that no one bothered to mention it to them in the months it went on before it finally resulted in a complaint being filed.

    3. I want to temper this suggestion by saying that not all HR departments are created equal. Every person has to determine for themselves what their HR dept is like and whether going to them will help the problem or ricochet back on them. I advise thinking very carefully before going to HR, and sussing out what any coworker allies of yours think.

  11. This is probably not helpful because the power differential is totally different, but at my last job, which was tutoring at a center where the kids came to us, we tutors got the high schoolers to stop saying “that’s so gay” and using “queer” as a slur by making it clear that that wasn’t language we were going to allow in front of us, albeit fairly indirectly. Usually responding with “that’s so what?” and occasionally “oh, this homework likes other homework of the same gender?” did the trick, but there were a few monologues about how that’s offensive language and you really can’t tell if you’re using that as a slur in front of somebody that it’s personal to thrown in there as well. I don’t know if the kids stopped using those in general, but they did stop around us, and that’s as far as our sphere of influence could really go. I haven’t heard any kids say either of those in at least a year, and the last one I heard say it got super embarrassed right away so I let it slide.

    Again, the authority direction was totally different, and we did a lot of mentoring in general, so it was one more thing we were teaching them. Not a trick that will work for the OP, but maybe for other readers, especially keeping it to “not around me.”

  12. I know not everyone here is going to like my suggestion, because it feels slightly icky, even to me to suggest it.
    How about deflecting in a jokey “oh gross, groan!” kind of way? I’ve used this especially with younger guys who dont want to see themselves as “gross and -ist” and it’s worked for me in getting these guys to shut up around me without holding a grudge against me.
    I’ve worked in mostly-male environments with high numbers of dude-bro types…who were largely conservative in the ignorant “this is funny to me, because I don’t actually know any black people/gay people/outspoken feminist people” way, without really intending to be so horrible. I was really reluctant to call them out in a way they could brush off as ‘naggy’ or ’emotional’ because I needed to keep open channels of communication with them, and not be shut out of the bro-circle at least while I needed them to do my job.
    Phrases that kept me sane back then:
    “Oh eew! you sound exactly like my racist redneck uncle!” bonus points if you put on a hillbillie accent and say exactly what he just said back to him with slurred words and a few “them there’s” every few words.
    when bro-dudes use the n-word on each other like it’s not a thing “Oh dude, you’re giving me KKK images. Can’t you just stick to ‘homeboy’ and ‘bruh’ when you want to pretend you’re gangster?”
    and: right after bro-dude says something racist/sexist etc, you say with a totally blank stare “My boyfriend/father/best friend is black/gay/transexual”. Wait for them to backtrack dramatically, and if you feel like being honest say “not really, but seriously, gross. Quit being gross”. I’ve found the releif they feel for not having inadvertantly personally offended me keeps their mouths shut for a while at least.

    Again, not everyone is going to like this, and if it makes your skin crawl to make any kind of joke out it, disregard completely. If, like me, you just need to stay sane while you GTFO of there, this might help.

    1. “Oh eew! you sound exactly like my racist redneck uncle!” bonus points if you put on a hillbillie accent and say exactly what he just said back to him with slurred words and a few “them there’s” every few words.

      Hmm.. I get the idea behind this which is to make a really unfavorable comparison, but I’m not sure about fighting racism/sexism using a classist trope – redneck hillbilly. Lots of rural folks are not ignorant, stupid or racist (even if your uncle is).

      1. Thank you. Linguistic discrimination is one of the few remaining “acceptable” forms of prejudice and it drives me crazy.

        1. Agreed. “You sound like a traditionally reviled group of poor people. Is that what you want?” isn’t really a snappy comeback.

          1. Point definitely taken, and this is something that definitely didn’t occur to me in terms of offence, so I’m glad someone rephrased it for me. I’m not American, so in my mind, the hill billie things felt like less of a negative stereotype and more like a totally exaggerated charicature. That was ignorant and insensitive of me. And I reiterate, I would never suggest anyone make a joke that makes their skin crawl like that, I just hoped the humour angle might inspire a gentler way of handling it at times when you just don’t have the strength or standing to fight properly.
            This is not even a tactic I like to use. It didn’t make me feel strong or in control, it makes me feel a little icky. Doubly so know that I’ve realised how horrible a hill billie joke actually is. I guess I just wanted to acknowledge that it’s ok to not always be a warrior, and not to feel guilty if humour is the easiest way for you to make a workplace more bearable.
            And massive apologies to anyone who found the hill billie remark insensitive. I’m majorly embarrassed, and never intended it. I grew up rural, and country folk are some of the loveliest ever.

    2. Deflecting with a joke or humor can be a very good way for someone who is conflict-avoidant to feel like they have more control over their situation. If you are in a position where your employer has power over your income, healthcare, happiness and success, you may not feel like you’re in a place to make them angry or defensive. People who wish to make racist jokes may very well get defensive when you call them out, whether or not you have gently held their hand throughout the conversation.

      A humorous deflection that I like is the classic/Jay Smooth-esque “Hey now, you don’t want to sound like a racist!”

  13. Maybe wishful thinking here, but if your boss really is a nice guy, as you’ve described him, gently/subtly calling him out on what he’s said might do the trick. He’ll get defensive if you flat out accuse him of being a racist; he might silently call his own behavior into question when faced with a “Why would you say that?”

    Happily, my two experiences with gently pointing out such things at work went well because the people in question were good people, and when they realized that their behavior wasn’t in line with their beliefs, they changed their behavior. I ran into possibly less well-intentioned people also, but they caught me so off guard that I didn’t say anything.

  14. I work for a tech company and this has been an issue for me too. Is it something in the water? When I started the R&D department was completely youngish white guys. Any conversation would start innocuous but tended to drift to something problematic.
    Sometimes because they were clueless, but mostly because they knew it was offensive and wanted to be offensive. Because “omg that’s so offensive!!” “lol I know right?” Your instinct that you can’t educate them is probably right.

    I completely agree with the suggestions given above, but I’ll add a couple of things that helped me. Not helped change their behaviour but helped me be at work without being angry all the time.

    First of all, if a conversation started to turn, I would say “Alright time to work.” or “Not cool. Back to work.” turn around and go back to work. Personally, I’ve found that to be a very good conversation killer. But if they continued I would put on headphones or get up and physically walk away. I would be helpful and friendly up until something awful came up. Then next time around it would be the same thing, friendly until a line was crossed, then disengage.

    Also, in my case, the company is large enough that there are people outside the R&D and IT departments who don’t seem to behave the same way. So maybe you would be able to find friendly techy chat time away from your jerkish coworkers?

    I know these are more avoid, rather than solve, the problem suggestions. But depending on your coworkers, you might find yourself feeling like every day is a confrontation, so some avoidance might be good to let you recharge. My 2 cents, if you want them, are (is?) to take the direct and indirect approaches and mix them up as you see fit.

  15. Stuff like this is always tricky to deal with, LW. In my last job it was a white South African lady who believed that Racism was Over the moment apartheid ended, and that therefore the continued poverty of POC in Africa was entirely down to them being innately [insert stereotype here], and also that this meant any nasty shit she decided to say was not racism but “calling a spade a spade”. And who was friends with the woman who thought constantly putting down other women behind their backs and sniping about their physical appearance and lifestyle would make her look ANYTHING BUT horrifically insecure and self-centred. Sadly they were both friends with my otherwise-cool manager and therefore seemingly immune from the consequences of their behaviour.

    I’ll second everything the Captain has said about ways to manage the situation at work. But I’ll also suggest you take steps at work to minimise your exposure to the crap your boss and colleagues are throwing your way. If your department (sounds like it’s a small group? so this may be relevant?) traditionally takes lunch and breaks as a group, start finding excuses not to join them, so eventually the expectation that you’ll be there will fade. “I just want to finish this project first”, “I felt like going for a walk while it’s a nice day”, “I need to pop to the bank during my lunch break”, “Person from other department asked me to spend it with them”. Be engrossed in your work. If it’s acceptable/feasible for you to do so in your line of work, wear headphones and listen to music on days when you don’t have the spoons to deal with this shit. Give yourself permission to not be present, or a part of the non-work-related conversations on days or at times when you need to just not have to be on guard.

    I say this mostly because I tried to make nice and continue socialising with my nasty coworkers for too long, and ended up stopping one of the afore-mentioned women mid-hate to lose my shit at her and chew her out for being a consistently nasty, hateful person. It didn’t turn out well. No one defended my point of view, everyone changed the subject after an awkward silence and I still had to carry on working with them. Only bonus was it made phasing myself out of the lunches easier!

  16. If this isn’t too much of a derail, I’d love to know how people react to customers/clients acting this way! I’ve had troouble with a lot of customers making pretty offensive jokes that, as a server, I ~SHOULD~ politely laugh at (because you have to laugh at customer jokes), but I do not want to at all.

    On topic: OH MY GOD LW I FEEL YOUR PAIN. I had a co-worker telling me how her boyfriend was gonna go in blackface for Halloween and gosh isn’t that funny!? I also used to moderate a gaming forum, so…yeah you can probably guess how feminist everyone else was.
    Ugh, Jedi Hugs and open palmed pats on the shoulder. What a sucky thing to have to deal with at work. :/

    1. When I worked in retail, if a customer made a bigoted comment, I would just not engage with them on that subject. I know, you are supposed to be a people pleaser at work, right? But you’re still a human being. You don’t have to call them out, but nor do you have to acknowledge that they said it. I generally just went on with whatever and acted as though it had not been said.

    2. I think you could use the “I don’t understand” strategy. You can laugh politely and ask ‘sincerely’ what they just said because you didn’t understand. When it’s become clear that you won’t ‘understand it’ soon, you can say something along the lines of “nevermind” politely (ugh) and move on.

    3. When I worked retail (which entailed being happy and smiley at people all day), and someone made a racist/sexist/political comment that I could not handle, I would disengage entirely, become entirely mechanical (but still efficient) in my dealings. Then I would be extra-nice to the next person in line. Granted, I rarely had to deal with someone more than once, and my salary had nothing to do with how much they bought or tipped, so it was easy for me to disengage from them. Maybe instead of laughing at a joke, you could do a wide-eyed, glassy smile and tell them you’ll be right back with (X)?

    4. I hated that when I worked in retail. At the time I never really had any coping strategies bar letting my manager know when a particularly creepy old guy – a good forty years older and he would flirt really inappropriately with me – came in so that he could ensure only the male staff served him and I could go hide out elsewhere. If you have a good manager and there are repeat offenders, tell them. Ask to be able to leave the till etc and hand that off to someone else when those people are in the store. Tell them every time a person is inappropriate so that they have ammunition to get that person banned from the store.

      If you don’t have a good manager to back you up, or it’s not something you want to tell them, I think the blank look and puzzled face probably works best. I’m planning on heading back into the world of retail soon and that is definitely going to be front and centre in the arsenal!

    5. I struggled with that a LOT when I worked retail. It’s very hard to confront someone when you have your Customer Service face on; even though the worst instances of customer bigotry I observed were at a store where I was a manager and the owner would back up his employees in such a situation, it was very difficult for me to speak up in the moment. Usually I would just go all steely-eyed and finish a transaction in cold, super-formal politeness.

      There were a few moments that stand out: we had a cranky customer who always caused trouble and came in one day asking if “that man in a dress still worked here.” We didn’t have any men working there who wore dresses and I told him so, which PISSED HIM OFF so much. He kept saying “you know who I mean!!!” and eventually I just said “if you mean [trans co-worker], SHE is still working here.” I wish I had been a bit ruder to that guy but I was really shocked (I am also trans and struggled with boundary-setting with my co-workers and customers at that time). I *think* I managed to make that guy feel at least a little ridiculous/embarrassed, though.

      At another job I had someone wander in who wanted to start a conversation about politics. The store was empty and this guy figured I was a captive audience to all his rambling rants about Obama ruining the country, I guess. He saw me give him a pained look, laughed, and wanted me to get into a discussion with him, and I just had to repeat “I am not discussing politics with you” several times before he gave up. That asshole laughed like he thought my refusal was the most hilarious thing, and I’m sure he thought I didn’t want to discuss it because I knew I’d lose a debate, or something. But I managed to just repeat that in the face of his nonsense until he left.

      My old boss had an irritating bigot friend who used to come into work to irritate us, and one time he was complaining to my coworker about “all those gays” in our town. At which point my (gay!) coworker said “you should really watch what you say, you never know who you’re talking to” which didn’t shut him up, exactly, but did make him a bit flustered.

    6. I’ve had trouble with patients saying stuff like that…a couple times a month I work at a rural clinic, and recently I had a self identified “old Southern boy” complaining about his experience with a black doctor. I usually respond by saying or implying “oh! you don’t really mean that” and being shocked because it gets them to backtrack without calling them out. I usually don’t get full on rants though, just stories meant to entertain, which are easier to shut down. I feel bad because sometimes I trade on the impression that my delicate lady ears can’t handle their brand of joking, not that they are just __ist and need to stop, but it gets them to be respectful around me anyway.

    7. I am not in customer service but our clients do show up on the job, and I actually made my first-ever sexism complaint on the job about them. Two of them- one more than the other- are overly familiar, they call the women in the office “hon” and “kiddo” and “girl”, and they touch us. Just on the shoulder or arm, but we had several conversations in the office and the experience of the four women in the office was all the same. (“creeps me out”). (it’s very unusual that there are four women in our office. I work in an extremely male-dominated industry). So I complained in a staff meeting about their behavior. My boss had his boss talk to me about it, so I detailed the behavior- she was subject to it also- and it has let up quite a bit for me. Not for the other women in the office though. It felt good to object to it, I will say that. I don’t know what, if anything, was said. But it often feels good to say something.

  17. Um. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you need to go to HR about a problem you are having with your boss, you need to have your exit strategy from the company all planned because Human Resources is not on your side.

    Human Resources is on the company’s side.

    Regardless of how good your work is, the company will tend to value your boss above you because he is your boss, therefore worth more than you according to the impersonal measurements of a corporate soul.

    Which means if you’re going to HR, no matter how nice the individual HR person is to you, their goal is going to be get you to shut up and stop complaining – and *you* will be tagged as a troublemaker. (Granted this is based on my experience – and others’ experience – in British companies, but I’m not sure Human Resources is that different an animal in the US.)

    Sorry to be gloom and doom, but in my view “going to HR” works much better as an unrealised threat than in actuality. In companies which have an Open Door policy and you can go talk to your manager’s manager, this *sometimes* works better because your manager’s manager may then point out to *your* manager (in private) that his job is to make sure you all work productively, and if stories he’s telling make you uncomfortable and affect your work, he’s not doing his job right.

    In my personal experience of Trouble At Work, it works a lot better if you can handle things directly with your manager in the way the Captain suggests. He probably doesn’t want to be the one who goes to HR either.

    (I’ve worked in all-male environments and I’ve found that the best way of stopping the men from making remarks I didn’t want to hear at work was just to fix them with a steely eye and say impersonally and briskly “I don’t like to hear things like that at work!” and then move on. Gets you a bit of a reputation as Humourless Feminist, IME, but better that than having to sit through “jokes” that make me want to tear their faces off.)

    1. I have worked in HR (albeit in nonprofits which may be a very different beast) and yes, we were looking out for the organization as a whole. However, if a supervisor whose behavior is pissing off other employees – that’s bad for the organization and HR wants to fix it. Not just to benefit the person(s) who made the complaint but also the supervisor whose effectiveness is hampered by his behavior.

      HR’s job is to have diplomatic conversations from a place of authority – not to rat you out or jump straight to threats of firing.

      1. I’ve worked in corporate HR and I agree. HR would rather try to find solutions for a team to work together and do their jobs in a way that helps make money for the company than automatically assume the manager is in the right. And I’ve always seen racist and sexist/sexually charged situations taken very seriously because of the liability threat. So, while it sounds like EdinburghEye has had some unfortunately shitty experiences, the assumption shouldn’t automatically be that going to HR in these situations is going to result in someone getting fired.

    2. I worked at a large American corporation once where I had to go to HR with an issue (co-worker kept inviting me to a threeway with her and her wife, even after I pointed out that neither I nor my husband would be okay with that… It wasn’t till I mentioned it to my family that someone pointed out “You know, if that was coming from a male coworker, it would definitely be sexual harassment” and I went Ooooohhhh…).

      I have to say, I feel like HR handled it pretty well. She was immediately assigned to a different location so I wouldn’t have to work with her while the issue was sorted out, and at the end of the inquiry I was asked whether I felt comfortable working around her again or not. It was made clear to me that my job was not at stake, and that the priority was a comfortable working situation for everyone.

      Obviously, that’s not indicative of all HR departments everywhere, and I feel like going to HR is similar to seeking a therapist: ultimately it’ll depend on the individual you speak with and how they handle your situation, and that can be a mixed bag. Ideally, they are there to help you deal with something you can’t or don’t want to handle on your own – but there are some asshats who get into the job, and someone along the line might let you down.

      That said, I agree with the Captain’s advice – especially the “How do you want me to react when someone says something ___ist at work?” At best, it shuts up boss-man and gets him to think about what he’s saying… and at worst, you get to throw the response he asked of you right back in his face the next time he says something gross. Feels like a win-win to me. 🙂

  18. Sometimes you are a temp worker and you can’t say shit because you are poor and vulnerable. Racism! Classism! Sexism! “I have a concealed gun in my car outside”-ism! Despite the economic consequences, sometimes you just have to tell the temp agency that it’s not working out. Or, in a long-term situation, find somewhere else to work? It’s the fucking worst. So sorry. Professionalism does not equal truth most of the time. Sadly.

    1. Sad but true. People are their own best judge of their own priorities, and food on your table is a pretty big priority.

    2. True. Also, if the situation doesn’t change, but LW feels that she needs or wants to stay at this job, it doesn’t reflect on her or compromise her values. Sometimes you really do have to work somewhere awful because you need food, medicine, a home.

      In that case, LW can take the satisfaction of knowing that she’s taking money from racists and spending it on delicious food, a roof over her head, and so forth.

      1. After getting into fights on the Twitters my sister likes to announce that she’s going to spend her welfare money on lollies and soda. 🙂 (And because we have awesome friends someone usually says “that’s cool, that can be MY tax!”)

  19. When my coworkers start going on about shit, I find it useful to pretend the conversation isn’t happening and derailing it by starting a new one. Turn to the person furthest from the speaker and ask them a question: how was their weekend? what are they doing that night? what are they having/doing for lunch/dinner? isn’t this weather that we’re having extra-weather-y today?

    This, plus the convenient oh I am so thirsty, I must go get some water immediately can be good tactics for when you don’t want to actively engage with someone but you really wish they’d stop going on about something.

    I realise this doesn’t solve your issue in the long run, but you’ve already got some great suggestions for that. Sometimes it’s good to have some short-term options.

  20. My group is mostly men. The few women are in a slightly different role, but embedded with the men, so there’s a segregation of function.

    Mostly, my group is decent, older folks who are respectful of each other. Usually, when someone cracks a joke that’s off-key, the fact that someone so awesome said something so boneheaded becomes the joke — and then everyone lets it go.

    But sexist stuff slips through sometimes. The other women roll their eyes, or Do Not Get it; I have become good at slipping phrases into the meeting babble to get the point across in a low-pressure way. “Wow, that’s kind of a personal question”. In each case I’ve watched the guy have the Defensive Reaction Of I Didn’t Mean It And So On, but the flow of the conversation had taken us away from the tense moment and everyone saved face because it’s not a Big Thing.

    Today, when someone forgets himself and touches my shoulder (not a boundary I have set, and something I don’t mind), I get apologies because they have figured out that Carbonated Has Boundaries.

    While my situation is about as good as it gets, I think the lesson I take from it is that, if the people are actually generally good-willed and clueless, rather than hostile, you can slide disapproving comments into the General Banter. This is a variation on the Wow, Subject Change approach but has less chance of becoming a Confrontation. (although your situation really might need a confrontation, LW)

  21. As usual, really sound advice, and some I wish I had 10 years ago when I started grad school. I don’t really have much to add except that I developed a fondness for strategy 2, and I came up with a modified version wherein I interpret the _ist comment as a different kind of _ist. I guess that’s pretty passive aggressive. But anyway, I figure that most people don’t want to own up to being racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise _ist, but they certainly don’t want to be accused of something they aren’t. So I tried this on a Facebook friend who had a history of posting racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise _ist comments on Facebook. One day he referred to a Hebrew name as sounding “kinda ghetto” (with other disparaging comments), and knowing full well the comment was intended to be racist and not antisemitic, I said, “Hey, why so antisemitic?” (Which was then followed by an explanation of Jewish ghettos despite that fact that he has a master’s degree in history and is a WWII enthusiast). I was hoping that having him explain to me that the comment was actually meant to disparage minorities, he might have a “Wow, that was really racist” moment. But instead I pretty much got a “LOL, I wasn’t being antisemitic. I was being racist!” response, so, I can’t say it had my intended effect. I did get some positive feedback from mutual friends though, and I learned that some people are just a lost cause. I realize that it’s a lot easier to unfriend someone from Facebook than to get a new job, but if you do try any of the strategies the Captain suggested, and the atmosphere still remains uncomfortable or gets even more hostile, I think seriously developing your exit strategy would be a good idea.

  22. I really like doing the blank-face awkward-moment response. If someone tells an -ist joke, or makes an -ist comment, I say nothing and make my face as neutral as possible. There is usually a long, awkward pause. Just let it be awkward–you didn’t make it be awkward, they did. Then switch the subject to something neutral and, ideally, completely professional. So like:

    Them: “[Horrible comment]”
    You: [Long, awkward silence]
    You: So, about the benchmarks from last night’s stress test….

    (This is, helpfully, pretty industry-nonspecific. When I was working as a grocery bagger, I did the exact same thing, but ending with, “So, paper or plastic?”)

    In some ways, it feels like a cop-out–surely I ought to call these people out, right? But over time, I’ve found that a lot of people kind of enjoy being called out. Some people like an argument and like it if you give them an excuse to argue. Some people like to get mad and like it if you give them an excuse to be angry, or play the martyr, or whatever. Some people don’t like an argument per se but they like the chance to feel like an iconoclast or ~edgy~, and being called-out can feed that. Even a negative response can feed a behavior.

    Whereas there’s nothing particularly ego-feeding about a blank response. It’s awkward, it’s painful, if they told a joke it makes it clear that you found the joke patently unfunny, if they told an anecdote it makes it clear that you found the anecdote uninteresting in the extreme… and they don’t even get to fall back on the pleasure of an argument or of feeling like they’re being persecuted. As an added bonus, you get to save your limited energy for educating people who are actually open to being educated.

    As an added bonus: while anything can backfire if someone is sufficiently dedicated to pulling you down, it’s much harder for this to backfire. It’s not impossible, but it is more difficult for someone to paint you as a troublemaker if it boils down to whining that you don’t laugh at their jokes.

    1. I tried this approach with the most recent and intolerable flaming asshole among my partner’s friends. We’d all be having dinner together, and the asshole would say something awful poorly disguised as a joke. I would stare at him without smiling and state “that’s not funny” with flat affect. Usually, the group (including the asshole) would laugh at my reaction as soon as I would stare at him. The asshole would protest that in fact the statement was funny. The wife would punch him in the arm and offer to let me hit him too. The whole group (except me, obviously) would collude in making the whole incident into a big joke rather than an example of awful behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated or encouraged.

  23. I am in situations like this a lot, and have a really hard time responding calmly in the moment, meaning I am rapidly honing the art of the confrontation email. If you get to the point where it is the right move to approach your boss about it directly, I would phrase it something like this:

    Dear Boss,

    I wanted to bring something potentially uncomfortable to your attention. Sometimes when we are having a good time at work, you have a tendency to make racially charged comments. One recent example is last week when you were talking about backpacking through China and you seemed to be implying that all Chinese women are prostitutes. It is extremely difficult to focus on work when there are so many potentially racially charged comments being made. I understand that you would never intentionally say anything racist, but I would prefer it if we could keep our conversation strictly professional during work hours. I love working at this company, and I am so excited about the project we are currently working on. I just don’t want anything to get in the way of that.

    Thanks for your time,


    The general script is:

    1. Alert them that they are about to be uncomfortable. (this makes it easier)
    2. Describe the problem in the most charitable and impersonal way possible. “You sometimes make racially charges comments” rather than “you are racist.” “You sometimes eat my expensive chocolates without asking” rather than “you are inconsiderate and don’t respect boundaries.”
    3. One or two recent examples, phrased impersonally.
    4. The immediate effect of the behavior, phrased impersonally.
    5. Affirmation, appeasement, and flattery.

    The goal is for the person to finish the email feeling like you like them and your relationship with them, and this is a logistical problem that is easily taken care of.

  24. This isn’t as direct and honest as the Captain’s great advice, but another possibility is to assign the offended reaction to a hypothetical invisible person: “Wow, [Racist Guy – let’s call him Bob], what if a client overheard you saying that?” And depending on the specifics of your workplace, “a client” can be replaced with “the manager,” “Carol from HR,” Bob’s direct supervisor, or anyone who might feasibly stroll through your work area and who Bob wouldn’t want to risk offending. (The one caveat, of course, being that, if you name a specific person, you’d better be sure that they’re not someone Bob already tells his jokes to all the time.) Especially useful if you feel like Bob doesn’t really care if he offends you, or if he treats your offended reaction like you’re playing along with the joke (“Haha, she’s doing a parody of political correctness!”).

    Of course, this may not work–he might just start looking over his shoulder more carefully before he makes racist remarks, but still think of you as a safe audience for them. But reminding him that people can hear the stuff he says may be enough to make him think twice and cut down on the offensive comments.

  25. I once had to have the “I’m sure you didn’t notice the awful homophobic slur in that forward you sent me” conversation with my boss. The truth is, I’m sure she DID notice and thought it was OK…but phrasing it that way made it easy for her to save face (and had the side effect of making her VERY CAREFUL what “humorous” stuff she said or sent to me from then on).

    I don’t know if the “I’m sure you didn’t notice…” phrasing that would work in your situation, LW, but if so, I found it very handy in my own Awkward Boss Conversation.

    1. I haven’t tried that approach with a coworker, but I did try it with a former friend. She kept posting Mexican jokes and hilarious ‘which personality disorder do you have?’ quizzes on her LiveJournal. After she posted the exact same quiz trivialising personality disorders as amusing quirks that everyone has, a year after I tried the friendly “hey, do you realise that’s kind of offensive?” approach, I got mad and reminded her of the previous time she’d posted that, and she told me no true friend would try to change her, and defriended me. So… I recommend this approach in a social situation, and would do it again.

  26. I love this advice, but as a totally non-confrontational person at work myself, I wonder if this could also be framed as inappropriate because it’s oversharing their racism, which is awkward, rather than because it’s offensive to the LW. As in:

    coworker: [some racist stuff]
    you: Woah, overshare! I really don’t need to know how you feel about mexicans. [change of topic].

    One of my coworkers had a similar strategy leading up to the election, and it worked pretty well in terms of getting people to leave her alone, although it didn’t stop our other coworkers from talking about the election when she wasn’t around.

    It’s less accusatory, and while I think you’re perfectly justified in accusing racist people of being racist, you sound like you’d just as soon not, as long as they’d stop doing it around you.

  27. I’ve one job so far that was really bad with this, but fortunately it wasn’t an office job, so the only times we were all together were on breaks and/or if someone were being trained. Large-group breaks were the worst, and so I spent a lot of time not responding to a lot of general conversation and/or getting really good at talking about sports, the news, and/or pop culture. And because all of us spent the bulk of our hours working off by ourselves, it wasn’t as bad.

    One of the things that job taught me was to loathe the fact that people discuss politics, religion, and money at work and/or as small talk. I was not instilled with good manners growing up–which is something I’m still trying to fix–, but even with my family those were always Not Okay topics of polite conversation, and I wish that were the case with everyone else. I’m at a place now where I am in the majority with my views, and it still drives me nuts because I know what it’s like to the person sitting there like, “Yeah . . . so how about Local Sports Team?” but I feel like if I say I don’t want to talk about politics, they’re going to assume that I’m in the opposite view camp, when how I really feel is that we should not be discussing those things at all.

  28. Yeah, this is not a fun situation, and I’ve encountered it most of the places where I’ve worked. The last time I went full-on confrontational about it was when a co-worker decided to go on an ableist tirade in my general direction a couple of weeks after my spouse got out of inpatient psych. Cue “backpedal backpedal I DIDN’T MEAN YOU!!!!” Fortunately, I was able to talk to our supervisor about it (he took one look at my face and knew Something Was Very Wrong), and I at least knew he had my back there.

    Ugh. Same co-worker sent around a Forward of Fail (racist and sexist political tirade about a specific alleged scam against “our tax dollars!!!”) directly related to another state’s version of the government program we oversee, and should have known because of its direct relationship that it does not work that way EVER. That one got a much calmer, “Hey, Cathy [not real name]? You might want to check the math on that one!”

  29. I’m definitely one of those people who will beat myself up for not being the Aggressive Defender of the Maligned in every given situation, even when there are all sorts of legitimate reasons why that maybe wasn’t safe for that given context, or maybe the softer approach was actually doing something.

    So! With all that, I just wanted to offer a slightly cheering story of what the smaller, softer tactics can accomplish. My BF works in a very white boy industry. He’s aware of his privilege as another white dude, that if he speaks up it carries more weight, but he’s also not a very aggressive dude by nature. He tends to do small things, like responding with an obviously displeased face to offensive humor, or getting up and leaving the room, or shaking his head and walking away. He keeps away from slurs, and frowns when others use them. And he’ll occasionally take an active role, say, bringing up in a meeting ways that the business could be reaching out to non-white non-dude clientele.

    Now that he is leaving this job, he’s gotten some unexpected feedback. One of the few women employees (who he barely worked with) told him that she felt like she was losing one of the few allies she knew she could go to in the workplace to talk to about the sexism. HR told him that he was one of the reasons they were able to get some anti-discrimination policies in place, because the owner felt like anti-discrimination stuff only exists to accommodate special interest groups, and HR could point at my BF and be like “You know BF would totally like these policies to be in place, and he’s a white dude,” and the owner would be like, oh, well, if a white dude cares, I guess it matters. Another guy employee lamented that with BF leaving, everybody will start saying “bitch” all the time again, because they’d stopped whenever he was in the room. One of his higher-ups expressed disappointment, because he was trying to push the BF’s suggestions about less offensive marketing, and felt it was going to be harder now that “you know if we don’t do this we’ll lose BF, who is a valuable employee” wasn’t a good excuse. And another dude told him he’d noticed how BF managed to shut down ugly conversations that otherwise spun off into -ism frenzies just with a *look* and he hadn’t realized he could try that.

    I know in a lot of ways this is a story about how privilege makes everything easier — white dude gets to do small things and people are like whoa sexism? I never thought about it that way! — but I think it’s also a story about how you can’t always know the effect you’re having. That business is still rank with sexism and racism, and the big offenders changed not at all, but there were definitely people here and there who took something away from a person resisting the offensiveness even just a little. So, LW, if you don’t see an immediate dividend from the ways you choose to stand up to this, that doesn’t mean it didn’t *work*; it might have a payback you can’t see yet.

  30. Thanks for the advice, everyone. I think one of the tactics that I’ve been emoploying and will continue to work on will be the “Look on blankly and unimpressed, deep sigh, turn around and get back to work.” I think that the boss is self-aware enough to know generally, or at least in hindsight, when he’s being offensive, so I’m going to stick with this strategy. There will be circumstances, I’m sure, where being more vocal will be useful, but it’s comforting to hear from others that this tactic does seem to have some traction.

    I also like the “Wow.” and the “That was awkward.” responses. Y’all are smart as all getout and very helpful.

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