How to Handle Inappropriate Comments at Work


I remember the first time it happened to me. I was in grad school and a professor made a comment about the inconvenient timing of me being pregnant. I was caught in shock, thinking, “Did he really just say that to me?” 

More likely than not, you have also been the recipient of a comment from a colleague or higher-up that stopped you in your tracks. How can we handle these comments well in the moment? And how do we differentiate comments that we can let go by processing them, ourselves, from those we should address one-on-one or even report to the appropriate office or supervisor? 

When to Let Go

Sometimes we receive comments from coworkers that boil down to poor communication skills. The comment might make you pause, feel a bit offended, or put you on the spot in an awkward way. Is there always cause for responding to a less-than-prudent colleague? 

One response may be the choice to personally process and intentionally move on from such comments. We can choose to assume goodwill — assume that this person means well but has something challenging going on that results in them acting unkindly. 

For example, I was chatting with a friend who was trying to build positive rapport with a habitually negative colleague. In her effort, she simply asked, “How is your day going? What are you working on?” Her colleague looked at her without affect, and said, “My job.” 

Despite our best intentions to build connection, we can’t control the attitudes of others. So in addition to assuming goodwill, we also have to manage our energy and keep it professional, not personal. There’s no reason this kind of negative communication should impact our day — it’s a good opportunity to practice solid boundaries.

When folks are uncomfortable communicating plainly or have learned poor communication from others, they may choose sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness over direct communication. For example, a friend who is a growth-minded manager sometimes receives joking comments like, “Tony just loves changing everything all the time so people can’t get comfortable.” Backhanded compliments are unsettling, but unless they demonstrate underlying disrespect or unfair public criticism, you might choose to let them go. 

While it is ideal to enjoy the people we work with, that may not always be possible. We might look at these situations as an opportunity for personal growth — to better manage our energy and steer our efforts toward learning how to communicate with different personality types in order to complete our jobs successfully.

When and How to Follow-Up

Certain comments made publicly or privately can make us feel attacked, disrespected, or hurt to the point of needing follow-up, either in the moment or soon after the encounter. If they prevent us from working with a clear mind, or point to an underlying problem, it might be best to deal with the comment explicitly.

When you feel like you need to follow up on a problematic comment, think of yourself as being your own best advocate. While the difficult realities of life call us to assume goodwill of others, we all have inherent dignity and are worthy of respect. Sometimes, it is our responsibility to speak the truth in love to call others back into respectful communication.

I was once having a standard conversation with a higher-up when it turned into the person saying that if they did not see some real changes, I would be dismissed. I was caught off-guard by the rapid change in tone, as well as what I perceived as a threat to my job for no reason known to me. I responded in the moment by asking for clarification around goals so that I knew to what expectations I was being held. 

My supervisor responded by pausing and clarifying himself. He named that he wanted to see change in our department overall. It was a year of transition in leadership and he was hoping for a noticeable new direction. When I responded by asking a question, I created opportunity for unnamed expectations to become explicit.

When we are put in a challenging space, sometimes remaining calm and responding with clarifying questions is enough to open up and diffuse the tension. Talking behind our colleague’s back, or responding in anger are never productive approaches.

If time passes between a startling encounter and the follow-up conversation, we might take on Jesus’ tactic of addressing the person first in a more private conversation, one colleague to another. It might help to prepare for that one-on-one conversation by:

  • restating what happened as objectively as possible;
  • stating how the encounter made you feel;
  • claiming responsibility for any part you played in the conflict;
  • and making a plan for how to move forward, set expectations, or communicate in a healthier way in the future.

When to Report to Your Manager or HR 

Reporting structures at work are essential safeguards for creating healthy team dynamics and culture, but HR isn’t always the first place to go. If you have consistent annoyances with one colleague, feel uncomfortable or frustrated with an interaction, or don’t know how to practice conflict resolution with a peer, your manager is a good first resource. Managers should be prepared to help their team work through conflict to create a healthy environment and success in job performance.

When you are the recipient of a comment that is offensive; or that perpetuates or enables an underlying problem, is derogatory, exhibits harassing behavior, or keeps you from performing your job, report to human resources. You can call or email HR and ask for a meeting: “I have an issue that I would like to discuss. Can I come talk with you sometime today?”

Whenever you face a problematic comment in a work context, it’s best to try to keep it professional, not personal. Of course, you probably feel personally attacked or undermined, but resorting to emotion in the professional context will only exacerbate the problem. So make sure you have a support network who can help you process those feelings and experiences so that you can seek resolution with a clear mind. 

And remember, you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity — if you feel like that is being threatened, you have the right to ask for help or take measures to correct the situation. That doesn’t make you a troublemaker — it’s the person you’re reacting to who has caused the situation. Knowing and holding clear boundaries simply means that you take responsibility for yourself, but not for other people’s problematic behavior.

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