A colleague uses homophobic language in the office. What do I do?

On multiple occasions, while in the office, a colleague has used derogatory terms to describe gay people. Recently, he used some of those words while in a conversation with me. It made me mighty uncomfortable.

I think he should stop, but I don’t want to be the culture police when such words haven’t been acceptable for decades. I also don’t want to dob him in to HR. That seems like a jerk move.

He’s a friendly fellow, and often comes over to my desk for a chat. Although I enjoy speaking with him, I’m now just poised for what seems like an inevitable transgression. What should I do?

It’s common for there to be a tension between feeling a personal responsibility to confront a person on such an issue and being anxious about potential repercussions
It’s common for there to be a tension between feeling a personal responsibility to confront a person on such an issue and being anxious about potential repercussionsCredit: John Shakespeare

A few years ago, a reader wrote asking about what to do if you observe harmful behaviour in the workplace. They said that although they agreed with many experts that calling it out was, in theory, the best course of action, such a move is often easier said than done. “[F]or many,” they wrote, “it’s either daunting, terrifying, dangerous or a futile exercise.”

That question had similarities to yours, and I think the response may be helpful, but was different in one significant way: you wouldn’t be “calling out” a particularly powerful person; this is a person on roughly the same professional footing as you.

And, at first blush, that may make it seem like the task is easier, without the authority to sideline, censure or sack you, your bigoted colleague doesn’t pose the same risk to your career as a manager or executive who has earned your reprimand. In reality, it’s not that simple.

Difficult conversations like these are so often easier when done in a partnership or as part of a group.

I asked Dr Raymond Trau, a senior lecturer in the Department of Management at Macquarie University, who researches workplace diversity and inclusion, about your concern. He neatly summarised one of the central reasons why experts so often discuss the importance of calling out harmful language.

“Using derogatory terms to describe a group is not only offensive but can cause harm to people who witness it, and to the members of the targeted group. Research has found that displaying even subtle prejudice or discrimination towards members of a minority group is detrimental,” he says.

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“The targets of this prejudice often don’t have clear options for responding. And when nobody calls it out, the act continues to cause harm.”

Dr Trau told me that it’s common for there to be a tension between feeling a personal responsibility to confront a person on such an issue and being anxious about potential repercussions, hostility or whether it really is your place.

And it is true that a confrontation of this kind may lead to belligerence, so Dr Trau says it’s sensible for a person in your position to “evaluate the benefits and costs”. The good news is, there are ways to minimise and even avoid such costs.

You could confront him directly and politely by posing a question. For example, “How would you feel if you belonged to this group and heard these derogatory terms about you?” Or you could highlight his positive attributes, like “I’ve always thought of you as kind and compassionate, that language isn’t like you.” Or you could simply express your unease: “I feel uncomfortable every time you say this.”

“If you don’t feel comfortable taking a direct approach, then try an indirect approach such as making an exclamation of surprise, something like “Wow!“, Dr Trau says.

As for it not being your responsibility to police your organisation’s culture, Dr Trau agrees. But he says that “fostering an inclusive and safe workplace environment is everyone’s responsibility.”

“Research has shown that confronting someone about their prejudiced behaviour not only reduces its recurrence but also reduces the person’s prejudice.”

I would add that difficult conversations like these are so often easier when done in a partnership or as part of a group. The goal isn’t to outnumber and overwhelm your colleague, but to demonstrate that your opprobrium isn’t the product of a mere opinion; it’s your team’s attempt to improve your workplace and uphold a basic standard: that homophobia is intolerable.

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Source: Thanks smh.com