'I Can't Believe You Said That!'


People say some pretty unbelievable things at work. But I know this isn't news to you. I'm sure you have your own shocking stories about derogatory, thoughtless or perhaps even sexist remarks from colleagues.

According to the Women in the Workplace 2018 study, conducted by McKinsey & Company in partnership with LeanIn.org, a depressingly high number of women have been on the receiving end of such remarks. Among the findings:

  • 35 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment, which includes verbal harassment.

  • 16 percent of women have heard demeaning remarks about themselves or people like them. (For men, that figure is 10 percent.)

  • 36 percent of women have had their judgment questioned in their area of expertise. (That's compared with 27 percent of men.)

  • 26 percent of women have been addressed in a less-than-professional way. (The number for men is 16 percent.)

When people speak inappropriately to them, women often feel caught between a rock and a hard place. They don't want to let the offensive behavior slide, but they also worry that speaking up will get them labeled as defensive and difficult to work with. And, according to the McKinsey study, less than a third of women think their companies often quickly address disrespectful behavior toward women.

How to Address Disrespectful Remarks

So what can you do if you're not ready to go to Human Resources (or question whether they can or will help)?

First, set yourself up for success by staying grounded. It's a hard truth, but if you fly off the handle, people will remember. Unfortunately, such reactions have a long shelf life, even when they might be justifiable. Remember that you always get to decide how you want to show up. What type of self-care do you need to help you show up the way that you want to and to stay centered? Remember that simple things like taking a few deep, diaphragmatic breaths throughout the day and emptying your head by handwriting what you’re thinking and feeling (uncensored) can help dramatically.

If you’re ready to have a conversation with the other person about their disrespectful remarks, here are a couple of approaches I've seen succeed:

  • If your relationship with the individual who treated you poorly has been good in the past, reference that. "Based on my experience with you, I didn’t expect your communication to be like this. It’s not like you. What's going on?"

  • You could also point out a pattern the other person may not have noticed: "Hey, this has happened a couple of times before, and each time I let it go. But now that it's happened a third time, we should talk about what’s going on."

Finally, remember that you don't have to take on this situation alone. Consider involving someone else, possibly someone who can influence different behavior. For example, if the situation is between you and a peer, your boss may be able to reinforce how she expects anyone on her team to behave and provide some feedback. If getting someone involved at that level feels like too much, start by engaging others who can help you think through the best path forward. Talking things through with someone who is not so emotionally attached to the situation may help you defuse tension and develop a course of action more quickly.

I know these types of situations can be messy, so take it one step at a time to keep yourself grounded, clarify what you want to do and determine your next steps. For guidance on other difficult situations at work, pick up a copy of my book "Show Up. Step Up. Step Out."