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I was chatting with a high-level person (CTO) the other day and he was trying to persuade me into moving (out of my home) to be located at a different office. I had told him that moving out of my current residence was a big hassle and a big decision to think about. He then made some stupid, snarky comment like "you're not that big", obviously a pun.

He did it jokingly, I guess. I laughed it off but I thought it was pretty unprofessional. I'm not a big guy obviously, I'm definitely on the smaller/shorter side. Ironically he's a man of really short stature himself. What gives?

How do you deal with management making an offensive joke at your expense? And is there a way to resolve this in a clean, and professional manner?

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    If he`s a short guy himself I wouldn't take his comment too seriously.. – Shai Jul 24 '12 at 8:44
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    Personally, I like a bit of office banter. We're all human and spend so much time in our workplace that a total lack of social interaction makes for a very depressing life. – eggyal Jul 24 '12 at 9:45
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    I would suggest changing the word "discrimination" in the title, post body, and tag. I could do that, but I think the point is important to understand - "discrimination" has some specific meanings, especially in workplace contexts. What you have here is a person in the hierarchy above you who made a joke about you that you didn't like. That is still a workplace question (how to handle it, if it still bothers you), but it is not discrimination. – jcmeloni Jul 24 '12 at 12:08
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    what @jcmeloni said. discrimination would entail you not getting the same opportunities and/or recompensation because of some characteristic you can't control (mental/neurological conditions are the exception. someone with tourettes is not going to be put on a customer-facing position, obviously) – acolyte Jul 24 '12 at 12:39
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    I'd suggest referring to it as an "offensive joke" rather than "discrimination"; edited that in for now. – Rarity Jul 24 '12 at 14:11
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I think it's a case of wanting to aim for "proportional response". He made a joke. A joke that was not funny, in fact, so un-funny that it bothers you. That's fair.

But it sounds like it was meant to be a joke. He didn't joke particularly in the dangerous ground of "protected characteristics" - which do vary from country to country, but which do not typically include height (unless you are talking height of a nature that qualifies as a disability). And it doesn't sound like he called upon others in the office to point and laugh. He merely misjudged his audience.

Add to it that you mention it's a boss's boss. In my experience that can be high level of variation - sometimes in my world that person has been an everyday contact. Other times they are a remote guy you see only in formal settings. Since it sounds like this is the latter - you may want to soft pedal even more. Maybe even only bring it up if you have occasion to interact on a similar topic and then only very casually. The goal in most situations it point out the problem as cleanly as you can without embarrassing the other guy. If you can work it in as casually as telling him he's got some lint on his shirt - go for it. If it'll be painful for you both, skip it.

The current guideline is that jokes like these are not 100% verboten, but if they are offensive to the person enduring it (whether or not they are the target of the joke), then they are not OK. And it really doesn't matter if he's short, too.

But you don't want to storm in there, guns blazing, HR and lawyers in tow. You may just want to breeze by in the course of doing regular work and suggest that his humor calibration was off. If you can, make a joke back, but if you can't say "hey, not funny" and leave it at that. Then move on, treat him with respect and forgive and forget.

You might even share that this was probably a poor moment for a joke... I'm betting that thinking about a massive relocation and talking it over with a boss is stressful. You've got a lot to think about with something like that, and perhaps it seemed like the boss wasn't taking it as seriously as it deserved? If it were me, that would be my concern - it's fair to point that out to him.

OTOH - if this is symptomatic and not a one time thing, up the calibration - actually close the door and have a chat. If it persists, call in HR and proceed with your company standards for mediation/escalation as necessary. But that's where proportion is key - a one time bad joke is not the same as a persistent negative work environment.

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    I agree with most of this but... It appears the OP is on the good side of the boss and that the OP is on a positive career path. Saying anything to HR or the boss could change that. If it bothers you enough then sure say something, just be aware that EVERY action has a consequence. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jul 24 '12 at 21:02
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    Proportional response here is probably not to bother to respond at all. – T.J. Crowder May 22 '16 at 12:29
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The usual social sanction for a joke that falls flat is lack of laughter or silence.

Hopefully, this would be sufficient not to try it again. If the pattern continues, you can tell him you'd prefer he not joke about your height.

Of course, for a certain class of folks, this would be an invitation for a steady stream of jokes about your size. Your description makes him sound like he's more clueless/ignorant/insensitive than sadistic, so he may respond well to the feedback, but you would know better than I would.

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As another commenter noted, this is not discrimination, perhaps just a poor joke that had the unfortunate side effect of pointing out a physical aspect of yourself that you conciously or subconciously view as an innate flaw.

Discrimination would be if the boss passed you up for a promotion to hire a guy who was clearly less qualified but very tall and attractive. If the poor joke manifested itself into some behavior from him that he would treat you differently becuase of the unrelated traits that he has prejudice against then that would be discrimination.

Another example would be if you work on the same team with an attractive woman and the boss routinely gives her easier and more pleasant tasks to perform than you. In this case he is discriminating against BOTH of you, the woman by possibly assuming she is incapable of performing tasks on the level of other men on the team, and discrimination against you by showing her favoritism.

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    Right, I used the word incorrectly here. Thanks for the clarification! – John Do Jul 24 '12 at 22:28
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    The question has been revised; you might want to edit this answer in response to those changes. – Monica Cellio Jul 25 '12 at 15:07
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Just one short thing to add: make sure that you get the interpretation of the events correct. I had colleague mad at me for 6 months once because he thought I made a fat joke (which is something I never would do). If there's any room for doubt, hold your boss in goodwill, and shake it off. This ensures that work relationships are not damaged. If he's the type that gets off on people feeling bad about themselves (and there ARE plenty of bosses like that in the world), then the only way to feed the beast is to feel bad about yourself.

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Don't take offense unless you have to...

Were you really offended or are you just wondering? Are you sure it was MEANT to be offensive? I've been in the position where people joke and are inconsiderate, or trying to be funny (and failing). A single time wouldn't get me worried about it, unless it was an egregious insult -- but this doesn't sound like it affected you that badly -- you're almost wondering if you should be offended. Was it a dumb joke, not told at your expense, but instead just flat? Does this person make similar, weak-humour attempts with other people? Maybe this is just them trying to break the ice... and maybe feeling just as awkward when they were trying to come off an jovial and friendly. Heck, it could even be a therapy assignment for the guy.

Maybe he was trying to play off the fact that you weren't interested in his great idea of you changing so much in your life on a whim just to be at a different location.

He might not even be aware that you paid any attention to what he said.

If it really bothers you, I can recommend taking a gentle approach and ask. But try to talk to him without any fear or assumptions that it was an intentional insult, a dig, or whatever. You're going to ask him for more information, but you're not going to assume that he going to answer any one way or another.

Wait until you can approach him in a low-key, casual way and ask if you can talk to him for a second -- preferably ask when you can do it reasonably privately... there's nothing like telling someone, in the middle of a group of people, "I need to talk to you." That just sounds omminous and challenging. Sometimes, people will react badly just because they think that need to "save face". It can be as simple as a quiet "hey, you got a second?", and turn a little away from anyone near by, for a private conversation. Unless he's dense, he'll know that you want to discuss something privately.

The less-stressful you can make it appear, the less he'll be thinking about who's watching, "what will so-and-so think about this? How should I act? Am I under attack? Should I be all 'official'?" Done correctly, he'll be thinking, "oh, he has something he wants to share with me..." and it's almost a reward to him that you're taking him into your confidence. Maybe you want his advice, or maybe you're taking him up on that great idea he had, etc.

Just ask him about it, without being offended. "I was trying to figure out what you meant when you said ..." It will help if you can bring yourself to actually be curious.

You can also express concern, "I was just wondering if everything's OK. The other day, you said ... " -- Meaning, "so, are we good?" but implying "you said something that seems out of character for you, and I was wondering if there's something 'wrong between us'".

I think that if this can be done casually and quietly, he'll wind up being able to think more about how what he said sounded instead of thinking about "this guy's trying to make me look bad." That's not what you're trying to do. You're just looking for some clarification, in a calm and curious way.

Many people aren't aware of the effect that their words have on others... some (a small number, I hope) also don't care what effect their words have. Some people, if questioned, will feel awkward and the need to protect -- in an offensive way. I think that the majority of people would care if something that they said was misunderstood or misintrepretted, especially if that something could be misunderstood as being purposely offensive. The less awkward you can make someone feel, the more they'll be able to listen without the need to defend. You're trying to get them on your side. By asking for clarification, or even expressing concern over THEIR feelings, you've given them a "good" part to play, and things may get cleared up quickly, with benefits all round.

You can be more direct, if you feel the need, "You said ... and I just wanted to know if you meant ..." but that is more likely to put a person on the defensive, and people in positions of power don't always deal well with being on the defensive. Sometimes, being on the defensive will make people behave less rationally. Sometimes, just calling someone's attention to something they did, without forcing them into a position where they feel the need to defend themselves, is enough to bring about corrections in behaviour.

One of the keys to all of the above is your not being on the defensive, either.

You're not trying to make the person look bad, you're not trying to blame or shame, you're not the "wounded party" (implying they're the bad guy).

I've also been in the position where people try to make someone the butt of a joke -- a little dig or sometimes a "joking" insult, or even a direct insult. If that's the case, the above can still work, but you can be less "curious" and more matter of fact. You still don't want to try to make the person look bad. Even badly behaving people have face to save. Being plain and matter-of-fact can help deal with this, especially when you're not taunting or threatening them.

If you ever get to the point where you really are, seriously, offended, then it may be beyond that "I want to discuss something with you" and it may be the point where you want to start documenting things. Calmly and clearly. And you don't have to have anything to do with the other person at that point other than behave professionally. And at that point, calmly approaching HR with your issue is professional. Calmly so you don't look like you're going to freak out and sue everybody - which makes the COMPANY feel defensive. You want the company to be on your side.

Oh, well, look at the time (length). I've gone on too long. I hope it turns out well, no matter what your actions. Do keep us apprised of the situation.

  • You sound like you would be a great contributor on the Etiquette proposal when it makes it into beta. If you're interested, I suggest following it, recommending to friends and helping to contribute when it gets to beta stage. – starsplusplus Feb 20 '14 at 16:50
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How old are you? I don't mean that in a rude way, but this kind of banter in the office is normal. If you can handle comments about your height/size, make a joke or self deprecating comment in return. If you can't, just act polite/confused "what do you mean?" and then a "oh I guess I just didn't get your joke". They will eventually stop teasing you if you just act like you don't get it each time. If you can play along, you will do better. It may have been more of a "not fat" comment than height. People in the office get teased for being young/skinny/smart etc. because people like to tease, but they also don't want to offend, so they will sometimes tease even for "good" qualities.

I've had older coworkers talk about a past workplace and say (jokingly) "well when I was at X Corporation...oh I guess that was before you were even born." They aren't insulting my age. Obviously youth is a good thing in today's culture. And if someone is willing to tease you it means they like you.

Don't ever go to HR to complain about this (or really, anything). If it's ever so bad you feel like you need to talk to HR, just leave the company. I am not joking. Good HR might exist, but most will protect "the company" and the company will protect their own culture and the dominant politically savvy network.

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