How Do You Respond To: Inappropriate Comments At Work?

People say some dumb stuff sometimes, don't they? Have you ever been so shocked you were rendered absolutely speechless?

If you ever walked away and later thought, "I should have said something!"... this post is for you! How do you respond when someones makes an offensive or degrading comment?

There are times to confront it and there are times to let it go. You have to decide which time it is. Most people default to letting it go because they don't know what to say. Or they underestimate the danger of letting things fester. 

The truth is, NOT dealing with it is dangerous. By not dealing with it, you allow your imagination to exert so much energy coming up with witty comebacks, or imagining what his face would look like after you hit it, or how you are just going to avoid dealing with him all together.

Why put yourself through that when you can just respond in a way that respectfully builds bridges and sets boundaries?

One of my clients got a new job. Before she was hired, a colleague with whom she now closely works did my clients job in the interim. In a staff meeting one day, my client was reporting how her team was not going to hit their earnings for the quarter. Her colleague interrupted her and said, "We would have if I was in charge."

This isn't the first time said colleague made such a comment.

What you LOSE by ignoring inappropriate comments:

1. The esteem and trust of your colleagues.

Your inaction teaches others that it is OK to demean or belittle you. 
Especially if you are new to a position, you will be tested. How you respond to those tests lets people know what you will and will not stand for. By not responding, your colleagues begin to see you as incompetent.

2. Your problem solving abilities. 

You are no longer able to concentrate on finding solutions because in the back of your mind you are mulling over what he said, wondering why he said it, and thinking of all the ways you could have responded. You are bogged down in so much anger, embarrassment,  insecurity, offense, and fear that you no longer have the mental capacity to actually do your job!

3. Your peace.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, "no one can make you feel inferior without your permission." By not responding in a healthy way you are relinquishing your peace of mind and allowing yourself to feel inferior.

How to address it!

Before I tell you how, let me say I will never advocate petty, tit-for-tat, childish behavior. Whether you are the leader or not, you can influence the action of others by treating people well.

If you want to fight, act like you are on Jerry Springer, or test out the latest profanity you've picked up, this advice is not for you. 

If you want to know how NOT to be at the whim of inappropriate behavior, to find peace in awkward circumstances, to move forward, and find effective ways of working with people, then you have come to the right coach ;)

Here is how I coached my client to deal with her colleague. Let's call him Joe. 

Affirm the person and deny the behavior in a power forward statement!

This is the power forward statement we came up with for my client.
Her: It looks like we are not going to hit our numbers this week...
Joe: We would have if I was driving it!
Her power forward statement: 
Joe, I recognize the frustration we all are feeling by not hitting this number. I have to tell you, though, your saying that you would have hit the number isn't helping us right now.  Right now, we have to shift our frustration into finding a solution going forward. I know you can come up with some great ideas, it would be helpful if you can focus on those.

Here is why this statement works:

A power forward in basketball has the offensive and defensive job of rebounding the ball. In defense they also have the job of defending the lane.

When you respond with a power forward statement like the one above, you have decided to rebound the conversation and get it back on track. You are also defending your lane, or your right to speak without being interrupted and not be demeaned.

Your power forward statement gives you the power to move the interaction forward in healthy ways.

The 4 ways a power forward statement helps:

1. It removes the personal attack and puts the focus back where it needs to be. 

By calling out the "frustration", you have put a name to what everyone is feeling. You can then choose not to get offended because these types of outbursts come from the same feeling you have. Since you aren't offended, you can clearly see to shift the focus back where it needs to be.

2. It tells Joe (and others around) that those types of comments are not helpful.

You have to treat adults like adults. Though they may act childish, they are not your children to be chided as such. So you have to make sure your tone of voice is sarcasm free. Sometimes people don't realize what they have said until it is repeated back. It is OK to tell someone their comment or behavior is not helpful. Be sure to tell them why.

3. It respects you and Joe. 

You can respect yourself enough to assert your boundaries. You respect Joe by recognizing that he has gifts and talents that could be used to solve the problem. Reminding him of that, without being condescending, helps Joe rethink his own behavior. Reminding Joe of his value encourages him to actually be valuable. 

4. It is freeing.

You free yourself from worrying, wondering, bottling up, and being on guard the next time you see Joe. Free your mind by practicing good communication skill.

Power Forward statements let you keep your head. Whether you say them one-on-one or in a group setting, they let everyone know that good, respectful communication practices do not have to be thrown by the wayside in stressful times.

Do you have a situation that is rendering you powerless? Respect yourself enough to take back your power and move the interaction forward. I can help you identify and craft your power statement so you can be free to do your job! Contact me

Did this give you a new way to address inappropriate comments at work?


  1. Great advice for anyone approaching these types of conversations and comments no matter where they are. Thanks, Julia!

  2. You are right. Generally guidelines are a good starting place. But every situation carries its own nuances which is why a coach is helpful.