Maybe I should just let this go, but I'm finding that difficult. A co-worker made what he considered to be a joking statement about people with a certain disease. I contradicted the statement, but he re-iterated what he'd said more forcefully. It wasn't really offensive in any usual way, but just stupid and insensitive and inconsiderate. Given that I lost a parent and several other family members to different types of this disease, it brings up painful memories also.

Also, the boss was sitting right there the whole time. Unfortunately, the co-worker seems to be the boss' favorite (he is very knowledgeable and productive, so his social shortcomings seem to be ignored).

Edit to clarify a few things: This person does frequently say things that are, in my opinion at least, inappropriate. Sometimes it's insensitive humor like this, sometimes it's over use of foul language, sometimes it's just insults (usually directed at someone outside our group). Also, as I stated in a comment, the situation is complicated with several contractors working on a long term project for a large organization and we work for different companies; escalating this to his company's HR department would be difficult.

  • Is he often inappropriate? If so, do the rest of you let it go when it doesn't affect you personally?
    – pdr
    Dec 4, 2012 at 21:22
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    How about saying "your comments about people with [BLANK] were insensitive and inconsiderate I would really appreciate if in the future you didn't make jokes about [BLANK]." - If in the future he makes similar remakrs escalate the complaint. Unless of course you really were not bothered by it?
    – Donald
    Dec 5, 2012 at 13:21
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    Why don't you tell us exactly what he said?
    – Fernando
    Dec 6, 2012 at 15:20
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    @Fernando: Why do you need to know? Nonetheless, to answer the question: 1) Such specifics aren't needed here and having them would risk getting the question labelled "Too localized". 2) I prefer not to get to specific, in case any of the other parties should ever see this.
    – GreenMatt
    Dec 6, 2012 at 15:26
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    @GreenMatt I don't need to know. However, you might get more informed answers to your questions.
    – Fernando
    Dec 6, 2012 at 16:23

5 Answers 5


Let it slide (assuming this was an isolated instance).

Everyone says stupid things sometimes. It can only hurt you to be confrontational about something that this inconsiderate person blurted out without thinking. If you have to actually retort, the best that could possibly happen is that this person and anyone who laughed will feel embarrassed about it. More likely, however, it will mark you as being oversensitive.

If the behavior becomes repeated and chronic you have a toxic co-worker and then you will need to react in some way, but keep in mind that an emotional or heavy-handed reaction often makes the behavior worse. See Chapter 5 of "The No Asshole Rule"

  • The guy is often out of line, IMO. And yes, I have usually let it go because I am concerned about a blowback which might make things worse. Thanks for the link to the book; I wasn't familiar with it and it looks like it could be helpful.
    – GreenMatt
    Dec 4, 2012 at 21:46
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    This is good advice, given that you all usually let it slide. Gently bringing him down every time he's out of line is an option (and can oddly earn you respect from this kind of person) but, given that you haven't done that before, taking issue with something that personally affects you will probably be seen as your problem, not his. Harsh, but true.
    – pdr
    Dec 4, 2012 at 21:55
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    @Angelo - Why should the author accept this type of behavior its not acceptable.
    – Donald
    Dec 5, 2012 at 13:22
  • @Ramhound, it is a matter of choosing one's battles wisely. If it is an isolated incident, it is best to let it go with the understanding that everyone says and does insensitive things sometimes. Persistent offensive behavior is another matter altogether and requires some measured action.
    – Angelo
    Dec 5, 2012 at 13:55
  • Letting things slide is generally bad advice. If someone is being toxic, let management know before the said a-hole starts slandering you to them (which is a situation I've personally been in with grave repercussions).
    – Spoike
    Dec 6, 2012 at 8:37

There is absolutely noting wrong with saying:

I have several friends that suffered and/or died from that and I find it difficult to see the humor in your joke. Could you not make jokes about it around me?

The first and often overlooked step in dealing with any inappropriate behavior or comments in the workplace is letting the person know that you are offended or uncomfortable with what they have said or done. Despite what you may consider appropriate social/workplace norms; not everyone is aware that they are making you uncomfortable and they won't know unless you tell them.

Obviously if the jokes/comments continue then you will have to make a decision as to how far you're willing to go with your actions. But you have to take the first step.

I've always told an employee to make this first step before escalating to a manager or HR. The only exception would be if you felt that the possibility of physical or sexual violence was likely.

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    I agree with this, but, most often, people who act this way consistently act this way and there is not a whole lot you are going to be able to do about it
    – enderland
    Dec 4, 2012 at 23:25
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    You may well be right, but that doesn't absolve us of doing the right thing and making sure they understand where we stand. It also removes the excuse that they didn't know.
    – Steve
    Dec 4, 2012 at 23:27
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    This. I'm insensitive and joke about anything. If someone asks me to not joke about X around them, I'll do my best - personally (Sometimes I'll forget, but normally after 3 or 4 more times it'll sink in. I really am dense.). Take a graduated approach. Talk to him... once... twice... then if it's really bothersome start taking it up the chain.
    – WernerCD
    Dec 5, 2012 at 3:48
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    IIRC from the various "sensitivity training" sessions I've been put through (policy, not because I've been inappropriate myself), your required first step is to tell the person that you find their comments/actions offensive or unwanted. If you don't tell them directly first, it's harder to take action further up the chain.
    – alroc
    Dec 5, 2012 at 14:14
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    Not to be too obsessive, but (sadly) some people are dense enough that I'd change the question in the quote to "please don't make jokes about it around me". Don't leave it as a question. Also - you may just be able to start a trend - if others think he's inappropriate, maybe they will speak up and you'll start the tone for speaking up. And don't assume that just because the boss is silent that he approves. It may just mean he hasn't considered how offensive it might be. Dec 5, 2012 at 21:21

Realistically, if your co-worker is very productive bosses will frequently turn a blind eye to their behaviour. The more talented the person is when it comes to work, the more they can get away.

The first thing I would do is confront this person. Tell them that you find what they say offensive because it impacts you personally, and that you would appreciate if they were more considerate. You don't have to explain any details. Decent (though ignorant) people will realize that they've gone too far and apologize right there and then and feel ashamed.

If that doesn't happen you can talk to their boss. You can be very blatent about things and say "I know Joe is very talented, but he says things that people just should not say at work. This really bothers me, and probably others". Your boss will have to say "Ok" and have a conversation with Joe.

If that doesn't happen, then you can go nuclear and take it to HR. There will be fallout if you do this, and you might even have to dust off your resume. You need to decide how far you want to go with this.

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    +1 for the confrontation. I had to explain to coworkers that their sense of humor was making me uncomfortable. Dec 4, 2012 at 21:21
  • Thanks for the reply. Unfortunately, I don't feel that going to the boss would be beneficial, and to "go nuclear" would probably be more harmful to me than him - I work in a multi-contractor environment, and we're employed by different contractors (and the boss by a 3rd), so going to HR would be very complicated, involving lots of management (from upto 4 organizations (adding in the organization which has put together this contractor hydra)) who'd likely look more kindly on Mr. Productive than "overly sensitive" me.
    – GreenMatt
    Dec 4, 2012 at 21:29
  • @GreenMatt that sounds like everything is stacked against you and you can't do much at all.
    – MrFox
    Dec 4, 2012 at 22:10
  • @suslik: Yeah, other than saying something directly to him, I can't think of much I can do (thus I came here). He left for the day shortly after saying these remarks and while I was still dealing with the shock his remarks had brought on. I expect that if I say something to him he'll apologize, but don't I expect him to change his overall behavior.
    – GreenMatt
    Dec 4, 2012 at 23:53

you have to say something in a non-challenging but firm way that sets the tone this behavior is insensitive. if there are workplace policies against bullying, violence or discrimination, also make a note on your calendar (mark private) and note what action you took. you may have to report it to HR if prior training has made it clear you are obligated to do so. I work in government and we have strict policies that could get me in trouble for not making the initial report.

then, if the offense is repeated, you have a leg to stand on. you have to follow procedure and go up the chain. document those reports too.

in the mean time, look into personal growth info that might help you turn the other cheek, let go of ego, etc., for the more minor offenses. life is short, don't pay them to get in your head and aggravate you. some people feed off of that.


This will be my opinion only of course, but this looks like an example of focusing too much on a minor issue and making a mountain out of a molehill. You say

It wasn't really offensive in any usual way, but just stupid and insensitive and inconsiderate.

Well, sometimes people say stupid things. If it isn't a serious problem, why spend so much energy on it? After all, that statement was the expression of guy's own opinion and of course you may disagree with it but here you in fact try to make him shut up because... well, just because you don't like it.

Really, once it's not offensive it should just be ignored.

  • 1
    Actually, the guy was making a joke about what he said was a fact (he's wrong on that), and insisted on reiterating said fact after being contradicted.
    – GreenMatt
    Dec 5, 2012 at 12:18

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