Editors' pick: Originally published Jan. 9.
Sharing political beliefs in the workplace nowadays often leads to discussing personal ideologies involving race, gender and even immigration, resulting in conversations which can resemble a minefield.
In the aftermath of the presidential election and as the Trump inauguration approaches, some people will feel they can be more verbose about their political and racial viewpoints, loudly voicing their often unwelcome opinions on colleagues or friends who are refugees, women or LGBTQ.
Many people have reported an uptick in conversations discussing these issues, making some co-workers uncomfortable hearing their colleagues discussing people in a disparaging manner such as "going back to where they came from."
Navigating situations where you are merely a by-stander trying to eat your lunch can be tricky when you hear offensive comments about another co-worker. While some employees will choose to ignore the person making a comment, others will not refrain from speaking up and engaging with that co-worker to explain why their statements were racist or sexist.
Determining when you need to report a rude comment to your manager or someone in human resources or bringing up the issue directly with the co-worker about a seemingly innocuous comment or joke shared in the hallway or the break room can be challenging.
The best way to handle an insensitive comment is swiftly and directly, said April Masini, a New York-based relationship and etiquette expert and author. Inform the person who made the comment that its offensive, but avoid denigrating the individual and stick to just the comment.
"Lots of smart and sensitive people make insensitive and hurtful remarks," she said. "Sometimes they don't know any better and sometimes they know and don't care, but as the offended party, you should never assume."
Ignoring truly egregious commentary in a professional setting should not be an option, said Travis Kelso-Turner, executive director of Executive Pride, a Las Vegas-based network of executives advocating for LGBTQ workplace rights.
"We need to be respectful of differences and discuss them in a rational manner," he said. "Passions run high when people have pre-conceived ideas about each other and tend to speak before reflecting or listening."
Types of Offensive Comments
Jokes are tricky, because what you may think is funny can be viewed as offensive to another person, said Masini. Instead, filter your jokes before telling them or comments which are based in racism, sexism, religion or a particular person or group are "best left unsaid," she said.
Sarcasm can be another dicey area, because your co-worker may not even realize you were being sarcastic. When that person believes you were being straight with them and not funny, it can lead to more issues.
"Check yourself for sarcastic comments that can be read as passive aggressive and offensive," Masini said.
Comments made in jest to diffuse situations typically bomb, said Andrew Faas, a Palm Beach, Fla.-based management consultant.
"If you are going to make fun of someone, make fun of yourself," he said. "My advice to people on watching what to say at work is being sensitive to how people may react to it."
Reacting to Demeaning Comments
Not all conversations need to be confrontational, and speaking up in order to educate someone about an issue can be accomplished without appearing angry or overly sensitive, said Kelso-Turner, who has encountered rude, demeaning comments at work before and after the election.
"A misguided coworker needs to be corrected respectfully, so they can understand why the comments are offensive," he said.
Dealing directly with a coworker who has made an insensitive comment is a better strategy. Hoping it was an offhanded remark in order to avoid having an uncomfortable conversation will not resolve the matter, said Katina Sawyer, an assistant professor of psychology and graduate programs in human resource development at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
Speaking up is even more vital if other co-workers are in the same room and you hold a managerial position.
"Even if you haven't received a formal complaint about the comment, other employees may be watching and taking cues from others reaction to the comment, which can set the tone for future interactions," she said. "Letting employees know that making others feel judged or unwelcome at work is unprofessional and bad for business is important."
If the intent of the conversation was to harm someone's feelings, this is a form of bullying and should be reported, said Faas.
"You should elevate it to someone in the organization who can relate to the situation and then determine who in the organization can positively address this," he said.
When one person's passionate rhetoric crosses the line and overt racist, sexist or discriminatory comments are made, reporting it to a manager needs to be the next step, said Kelso-Turner.
"Direct hate speech that puts down a community based on sexual orientation needs to be corrected," he said.
Instead of shying away from a difficult situation, use the opportunity to educate the person who made the remark, said Masini. While it might be obvious to you, the person might be uniformed.
"Explain why the comment is insensitive and how it makes you feel," she said.
Why Racial Comments Need to be Avoided
The majority of racial or ethnic comments made in the workplace, including casual ones should be avoided. While the speaker might believe the comments were made with goodwill, even ones which appear to be positive about model minorities excelling in classical music or sports are just as negative because they reinforce racial stereotypes, said Adia Harvey Wingfield, a sociologist who studies women and minorities in the workplace at Washington University in St. Louis.
These racial comments are often actually problematic, and this occurs often with Asian Americans, who are stereotyped to be intelligent, hardworking and a model minority.
"On its face, it would appear that these are complimentary representations," she said.
Researchers have demonstrated that this type of stereotyping obscures the "very real consequences of racial inequality that Asian Americans still endure with occupational discrimination and pay inequity," Wingfield said. At the same time, the experiences of Asian Americans such as Filipinos, Laotians, Hmong and Cambodians, who remain consistently underrepresented in professional and managerial employment are also not discussed.
Positive stereotypes such as believing that women are nurturing and have patience, Asians are exceptional at solving math equations and African-Americans excel as athletes are still racist comments, said Sharon Schweitzer, an etiquette author and the founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide, a firm based in Austin, Texas.
"These positive stereotypes are racist comments, because they are positive in one sense, yet they encourage thinking about people in terms of their sex, race or ethnicity and not as individuals," she said.
Calling out any group for positive or negative traits remains demeaning and demoralizing, said Masini.
"The mere fact that you're segregating a group — for better or for worse — is what's offensive," she said. "It's a reverse prejudice, but it's a prejudice nonetheless."
All stereotypes are assumptions of a group and people want to be treated as an individual who is unique and valuable at work instead of being a member of a group, said Sawyer.
"Stereotyping causes us to make decisions about people at work that are less accurate and fair," she said.
Instead, judge people objectively for their performance.
"Any comment that suggests you might be making assumptions about others might be viewed as offensive and could have the ability to hurt business down the line," said Sawyer.
Many workplaces have observed an uptick in racial commentary since the election including harassing and offensive comments.
"Although you may believe your comments reflect, 'just how things are,' they inaccurately presume that your colleagues adhere to certain paradigms," said Schweitzer. "Comments assuming a narrow view of our nation's diversity are offensive and unwelcome in today's workplace."