Dealing with co-workers who say something offensive can be really messy. In most cases, your gut might be telling you to respond in a completely different way than the career-minded part of your brain. It’s a seriously iffy position to get out of without what feels like compromising some of your values somehow, yet it happens so often.

So, what do you do? Should you ignore the comments that make you uncomfortable—that you might, if a grandparent or cousin said them over Thanksgiving, otherwise confront? What are the potential professional consequences of overstepping or even being seen as criticizing your colleagues?

It’s a complicated issue to deal with, and that’s why I brought in the big guns: Adrian Hopkins and Jenny Foss, two Muse Career Coaches, and Shannon Fitzgerald, the Director of HR at The Muse. They all offered their advice on how to best navigate these sticky situations.

When it comes to reacting to a problematic comment, no matter what sort of approach you plan to take, just remember to go into it with an open mind. “The first and most important thing to do is to separate the person from the problem,” says Hopkins. “Your co-worker saying something problematic is different from him or her being problematic. Making this distinction will allow you to think rationally about how to address the issue.”

From there, you have two options: speak with him or her one-on-one, or talk to a supervisor or someone from HR about it.


Option 1: Speak With Him or Her

So, say you and your colleagues are having a light-hearted conversation at lunch. Suddenly, someone cracks a joke that sounds mean-spirited, and you can tell you’re not the only one who was rubbed the wrong way by it. The neutral thing to do in the moment is to clarify, right then and there, what that person just said. According to Foss, this is a non-threatening option that guides the person into realizing “that they said something dumb, offensive, or out of line and prompt an apology.”

Even if a comment makes you uncomfortable, it’s important to give your co-worker the benefit of the doubt—after all, you’d hope as much for yourself in the situations where you undoubtedly slip up, too. A simple You just said [insert statement]. Could you explain more specifically what you meant? should do the trick.

If that doesn’t work out, asking to talk outside the office is another option for confronting her without putting her on the spot. “Although it might be uncomfortable, ask for time with your co-worker outside of the office (for coffee, lunch, or a walk) and talk about what made the comment seem problematic,” shares Hopkins. “Because you're outside of the office, the conversation between the two of you will be frank and you may be able to reach an understanding about the issue.”

You can (almost) guarantee a “yes” to this brief meeting request by saying, “I wanted to discuss a comment you made at lunch. Do you have five minutes to grab a coffee?” This way he or she knows this isn’t a casual chat that he can say no to—and also won’t be thrown off-guard when you suddenly dive into something more serious.


Option 2: Bring the Issue to a Supervisor or HR

If speaking with your co-worker directly isn't an option, consider speaking to someone in human resources, your manager, or even that person’s supervisor. Keep in mind: When you bring higher-ups into the situation, there may be more logistical procedures to follow up with. According to Hopkins, “there may be ‘next steps’ that you should prepare for, such as your co-worker facing discipline or you being called in for a mediated discussion about the issue.”

Of course, every company has a different way of handling internal relationships, which is why Fitzgerald says “a good start would be to reference the employee handbook.”

If you decide to bring up the issue to someone with professional experience in handling it, one easy way to have an honest conversation about it and your concerns would be to bring it outside the office. “If employees ever want to talk to me about a sensitive topic they usually ask if we can grab coffee or schedule a meeting with me,” she adds.

One way to initiate this discussion is to simply say, Hey, can I put some time on your calendar for later today? There's something I wanted to talk to you about. And while it’s perfectly OK to keep the interaction that short and stop there before your later conversation, you also can bring up the context for the meeting if it feels right. Giving a heads up about what you want to talk about will only make it easier for the other person to come better prepared to assist you.

“HR can usually help mediate or offer suggestions on confronting the co-worker,” says Fitzgerald. “It's helpful when the employee comes prepared with objective examples and wants to see some sort of resolution (rather than just a venue to complain). Was it a one-time scenario or repeated occurrence? Did others witness the interaction?” Knowing the circumstances can be helpful in coming to a conclusion about next steps.

How you should go about this option certainly depends on how approachable your HR department is, since that varies from company to company. But at the end of the day, even if this seems like a serious or even scary approach to settling the issue, keep in mind that HR leaders truly know the protocol in these challenging situations. “Employees should never feel afraid to bring sensitive topics to HR or their immediate manager,” explains Fitzgerald.


Regardless of which option you decide to go with, Hopkins leaves us with this key piece of advice: “You should be prepared to see and work with this colleague again, so remain professional at all times.”

So, before you go burning bridges over Jimmy from Finance’s super uncool statement (as much as you may like to), try your best to sort it out first. Your ultimate goal should be to shape your office environment to be the safe, healthy, and communicative one you’d like to work in—and that means resolving the situation to everyone’s satisfaction.

After all, no one has ever learned from his mistakes by being unaware of them.


Photo of conversation courtesy of Dave and Les Jacobs/Getty Images.