How to handle slights, slurs and derogatory comments


When asked to write about LGBT workers, I found myself overwhelmed with possibilities. Conflict, relationships, identity- all broad topics with many applicable issues. As I thought about this and began to narrow down the options, I decided to tackle the slights, slurs and derogatory comments LGBT employees encounter. These subtle (or not so subtle) jabs negatively affect the employee’s attitude, behavior, relationships and ultimately productivity. No way to live or work.

            So what can you do? If you are the target of these offensive remarks, you need to begin by asking yourself this question: What is my goal- end result I want to achieve? Maybe you want to get the offender fired, quit your job, request change in position or just avoid unpleasantness. Think about this and consider the possible outcomes of your actions. For example, if you attempt to get the offender fired, be prepared for a long investigation in Human Resources, tension among co-workers and the possibility that you won’t succeed. What then?

            The goal for most employees is to confidently and effectively perform in the workplace. This means you’ll need to be comfortable being exactly who you are and expressing yourself honestly. To accomplish this, directly address offensive remarks. Here’s how:

1- Stay calm

When the comment is made, you will probably have a variety of reactions: anger, hurt, indignation (and more). Take a deep breath and a moment to regroup before you act on any of these emotions. It might feel great in the moment to lash out and make a scene, but in the long run this will not benefit you.

2- Be direct and clear

You’ll need to address the comment directly. Make a statement: ‘I really don’t appreciate that remark. Kind of hurtful.’  or  ‘You know, that word is really offensive.’  The point is to make the speaker aware. (You’d be surprised how many people are oblivious to the effect they have on others). You want to inform, not attack. This way the information is out there (no one can say ‘I didn’t know’) and you have behaved professionally. 

3- Do it Now!

It’s very tempting to let these slights go, especially if they are presented as a joke or light banter.  If you aren’t bothered by the comments, that’s fine. But if you are offended, you need to set things straight right away. If you remain silent, the speaker as well as co-workers and supervisors who witness the comment will assume you’re ok with it. And it will continue. When you can’t stand it anymore and lash out, people will be surprised and confused: ‘I thought it was ok. You never said anything.’ Nip it in the bud immediately with a calm professional statement.

            Following these guidelines improves your relationships and interactions with co-workers and supervisors, which helps you achieve your goal: confident and effective performance in the workplace. When you practice direct and honest communication, you not only demonstrate your professionalism and integrity but you also set the tone and model for others. Next steps include developing and practicing empathy and fostering group cohesion among employees. This is a task for the organization; investing in a program that accomplishes this benefits ALL employees and reinforces individual efforts to improve communication and company culture. Talk to your co-workers and supervisors, and consider recommending to Human Resources or even the CEO. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything- a great place to work!- to gain. 

Laura MacLeod, LMSW. With a background in social work and 2 decades of experience as a union worker, Laura MacLeod created From The Inside Out Project with all levels of employment in mind to assist in maintaining a harmonious workplace. She is an adjunct professor in graduate studies at the Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work and leads training sessions for social work professionals at The Coalition for Behavioral Health and Institute for Community Living in New York City and speaks on conflict resolution, problem solving, and listening skills at conferences across the country.