Did You Really Say That?

A Manager’s Response to Inappropriate Comments

In the pilot episode of the television series, Mad Men, new employee Peggy Olson experiences sexual harassment from junior executive Pete Campbell on her very first day. After Campbell chastises her about her more conservative appearance and suggests she should show off her legs, the manager in the scene, Don Draper says, “Sorry about Mr. Campbell here. He left his manners back at the fraternity house.” After Draper’s comment, Campbell merely shrugs and leaves. He did not take the senior manager’s comment seriously. Many decades have passed since the fictitious era of Mad Men, yet managers are still ignoring or excusing inappropriate or offensive comments in the workplace.

It is easy for a manager to excuse or ignore the inappropriate comments of a staff member or colleague. They let themselves off the hook with one of many internal justifications. Unless someone mentions it is offensive, I don’t have to deal with it. Unless someone puts a complaint in writing, I don’t have to acknowledge the issue. Unless I know it is affecting productivity, it isn’t my responsibility.

Over the past several years, it has become clear to organizations that ignoring inappropriate behaviour does indeed influence productivity, moral, and organizational brand. Potential employees are not attracted to organizations with reputations of ignoring harassment. Employees walk away from organizations to workplaces where they believe they will be treated with respect and dignity. Employees that remain in workplaces where they feel diminished do not give their full energy and creativity to the job. Therefore, the role of conflict agent, harassment resolver now rests on the shoulders of managers everywhere—in addition to their already overwhelming workload.

Don’t Let it Pass

A belief within management and human resource circles has been to praise in public and discipline in private. Although there is merit in addressing negative behaviour both in private and when the manager “has time,” taking the discipline behind doors only sends the message that the manager is ignoring or condoning the inappropriate behaviour. It must be dealt with in the moment, surrounded by those who heard the comment.

Don’t Laugh it Off

In the Mad Men example above, after Pete’s last comment, Don Draper points out to Peggy: “Sorry about Mr. Campbell here. He left his manners back at the fraternity house.” Don Draper’s suggestion that Pete’s comments were ‘frat house’ is not acceptable in today’s workplace. Neither is the belief that when men are alone together it is not only acceptable to speak about women in derogatory ways—it is expected. The workplace is not a locker room.

We have long excused behaviour under the umbrella of humour. When we hear an introductory line such as, “I probably shouldn’t tell this joke, but…” or “This is probably politically incorrect, but it is so funny …” we know that the speaker is about to say something inappropriate but is defending their behaviour by couching it in the perceived safe zone of humour. A manager who listens, laughs, and then tells the speaker, “Yes you are right, that’s funny, but you shouldn’t tell it here,” excuses the speaker, encourages inappropriate behaviour going forward, and creates a toxic work environment.

Intervene Immediately

Regardless of the intent of the speaker, a manager must make it immediately clear that the comment was over the line. When making it clear, the manager can:

1. Give the speaker the benefit of the doubt—did they know the comment was inappropriate or offensive? Do they have stereotypes and beliefs that justified the comment in their mind?
• You probably meant well, but what you just said bothered me…
• You were probably trying to be funny, but some people really believe that and that is no joke.
• I know that you support the team, but a comment like that undermines us.

2. Try a light comment that might push the employee back on the path of respect with self reflection:
• Wow! You didn’t really say that?
• Ouch! Do you have something against working with people who are ____?
• Really! That isn’t a comment you expect to hear in a workplace!

3. Ask a question to get under the true meaning:
• What did you mean by that?
• What are you saying?
• I don’t think I could have heard you correctly? What did you say?

4. Repeat the comment to show the ugliness:
• What do you mean when you say, “Isn’t that just like a …”
• It sounds like you are saying that you think this person is …, is that right?

5. Interrupt appropriate jokes
• Yikes – I am not going there…
• Hold on – hazardous territory you are heading for.

If the manager’s words are scoffed at or if the comment itself was egregious, a manager may want to immediately take a more serious tact, reminding the employee about the organizational policy regarding harassment and discrimination in the workplace, along with the corresponding disciplinary outcomes.

The most important actions managers can take when they witness inappropriate and offensive behaviour is to view the issue seriously and respond immediately. Only by doing this, will organizations be safeguarded from drops in moral, productivity and commitment.

Jeanne Martinson is a Diversity Strategist and best-selling author based in Mossbank, Saskatchewan. See more of her work at