A Reader Asks: How to handle hate speech

No Hate SpeechA reader submitted the following work challenge:

“Sometimes people tend to say things that are very demeaning, degrading, and discriminating against others. What is your advice for those of us who [witness these] remarks?”

Whoa! Wait! Did he just say what I think he said?

Unfortunately, it happens more often than we’d like to admit. Picture it with me for a moment. You’re waiting for the staff meeting to begin. People are coming into the room. They’re gathered around the conference table talking and feeling comfortable being among “friends”. Then, there it comes. Someone blurts out a “joke” that is (as the reader put it) “very demeaning, degrading, and discriminating”. This is hate speech.

What do you do when you hear hate speech?

Unfortunately, too many times we ignore it, laugh it off, or just smile uncomfortably all the while listening to the following internal debate going on in our heads.

Should I say something? I should say something. What should I say? Oh good. The meeting is starting. Maybe I’ll…yeah…I’ll just … sit… here since the meeting is starting <sigh>.

What should you do when you hear hate speech?

Learn the rules

Hate Speech Code of ConductFirst, it is your responsibility to know and follow your company’s policies such as its Code of Conduct and to be aware of the processes your company has defined to support employees in these situations.

When in doubt, contact your Human Resources (HR) representative. Also, contact HR (or security/police as warranted) if there is any hint of violence. I’ve had some interesting (and uncomfortable) conversations with HR over the years due to this degree of vigilance, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

“No, I don’t really think he is going to bring a gun to work and shoot her, but he did essentially say that.”

The Setup

Okay. I am going to walk through four cases and describe how to respond to each one. In each case, I assume that someone said what they thought was a funny joke during a meeting, but in fact, it was hate speech. What is different about each case is the role of the person who overhears the “joke” and their relationship to the “joke” teller. This relationship helps determine the approach one should take when responding.

Case #1: Supervisor overhears a staff member

In this case, you are a supervisor, and you overhear someone who reports to you say the “joke.”

First, as a supervisor you need to be prepared. Develop a canned response (see my post The Power of a Canned Response) for use in this often-uncomfortable situation. The canned response provides the basis for a standard approach that will go smoothly. My canned response for this situation is: “That’s not appropriate for the workplace.” I know it may sound  kind of weird (okay it does), but it’s easy to remember, and it works for me. Another point to make here is that this is one situation where I ignore the praise in public, criticize in private adage. You must be seen by those listening to be firmly against this behavior. Your strong stance sets a clear expectation of what will and will not be tolerated.

When you hear the “joke,” say your canned response right away. Calmly. Slowly. Conversationally. “Hey man (shaking your head no), that’s not appropriate for the workplace.” Then move on. Everyone knows the deal, and it is counterproductive to dwell on it at this point as dwelling on it will only further embarrass the person and make them more likely to become defensive and/or argumentative. Message sent. It likely will not happen again with this person or with the others in the room. After the meeting, send yourself an email of what happened and archive it. This provides a record (with date) of the situation that you can reference later if it happens again.

If it does happen again, use your canned response one more time but more firmly. “Hey (making direct eye contact with eyebrows raised), let me be clear. That is not appropriate for the workplace.” Then, move on with your meeting.

The next step is to have a private conversation with the person. I prefer to do this during our next 1:1 meeting. I tend to wait until the end of that meeting to raise the issue. Why the end? You will just have had a good, friendly meeting, and the person will have a hard time accusing you of being anything other than business-as-usual. Describe what you heard (“During our last staff meeting, I heard your ‘joke’ to the rest of the team.”). Explain your expectation that this will not happen again (“It wasn’t appropriate for work, and I expect to not hear that again.”), and then ask for feedback and confirmation that he or she understands your expectation (“I’d like to listen to your thoughts, but first, do you understand that this cannot happen again?”). Listen receptively. Immediately after the conversation, document with HR what’s happened. Use the email you sent yourself previously and the details of this conversation as input.

Rarely, will it happen again. If it does, your canned response or an in-meeting reprimand will likely not work as there is a deeper issue that you cannot resolve during the meeting. Make direct eye contact with the person for a few moments, and then move on. All in the room will know what you are thinking without you having to say anything. Document the background and current infraction with HR, and work with them on defining the appropriate next step to deal with the situation. Take the lead from HR.

Case #2: Supervisor overhears someone not on their staff

In this case, you are a supervisor, and you overhear someone who does not report to you say the “joke.”

As with the first case, once you hear the “joke” say your canned response right away, and once again, move on with your meeting. You’ve sent the message, and it will not likely happen again. As with Case #1, send yourself an email of what happened for use later.

If it happens a second time with this person, talk to that person’s supervisor. Again, an in-meeting reprimand will likely be ineffective especially since he or she does not report to you. When you talk to the supervisor, explain that it has happened more than once (goes to pattern), share the information from the email you sent yourself after the first infraction, and indicate that you would like to hear back on the results of the conversation  he or she has with the “joke” teller. Document this conversation, and send it to the supervisor including your request for follow up. This shows that you are serious and that you are not going to let this be ignored. If you don’t hear back from the supervisor within a few weeks, keeping reaching out until you get resolution. At a minimum, I would want to make sure that the supervisor or HR had a conversation with the “joke” teller. If you don’t get resolution, consider escalating to HR directly.

If you hear another infraction from this person in the future, inform the person’s supervisor again. Unless you get a response that makes you feel that this is being seriously addressed, document it with HR yourself providing the entire background and expressing that you’d like action taken to resolve this. At some point the question of your culpability could be called into question, and you should have your actions and expectations clearly documented.

Case #3: Someone overhears a peer

In this case, you overhear a peer say the “joke.” The peer may or may not report to your supervisor.

When this happens, you have two choices. You can allow the person one strike, or you can immediately escalate the issue. This is a judgement call based on the severity of what was said. Again, this case assumes it was an inappropriate “joke” and not a threat of any kind. If you give the one strike, send an email to yourself documenting the situation. If you don’t give the one strike, skip this step and go to the next paragraph.

If it happens a second time (or you did not give the person one strike), escalate this to your supervisor in writing (by that I mean email) providing the details of what’s happened. If the “joke” teller reports to your supervisor, ask your supervisor to address the issue.  If the “joke” teller reports to someone else, ask your supervisor to share the details with that person, so he or she can address it. Documenting this request in writing is important as it puts additional onus on the supervisor(s) to act.

If it happens again, the details of the situations need to be escalated to HR with a request that action be taken to resolve it. If you have a good, trusting relationship with your supervisor and believe he or she responded appropriately to your initial escalation, you can document the latest infraction with your supervisor and have him or her contact HR. If you don’t have a trusting relationship with your supervisor, you don’t trust that he or she has been addressing the situation, or you are concerned he or she won’t contact HR, bypass your supervisor and escalate the issue in writing to HR directly  I would copy your supervisor on the email as a courtesy unless you have serious issues with the person (read: you fear retaliation).

Remember my comment above about understanding and following your organization’s process for these situations. Those policies/processes should take precedence here.

Case #4: Someone overhears their supervisor

In this case, you overhear your supervisor say the “joke.”

As with Case #3, you can allow one strike, or you can escalate immediately. Again, this is a judgement call based on the severity of what was said and assumes it was an inappropriate “joke” and not a threat of any kind. If you give the one strike, send an email to yourself documenting the situation. If you don’t give the one strike, skip this step and go to the next paragraph.

If it happens a second time (or you did not give the person one strike), document the situation with HR, and be clear that you’d like action taken to resolve this.

Thank you to the reader who posted this question. How to handle hate speech is an important topic. Remember to submit your work challenge for consideration as a topic for a future post as this reader did.

Have you experienced situations at work involving hate speech? What did you do that worked? Share your experiences by leaving a comment.


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  1. Wendy Solomon says:

    How would you handle it if the “joke” teller was a customer?

    • You’ve raised a very important question, Wendy. Thank you.

      Most organizations have a certain degree of control over which customers they choose to serve. They key to the answer to your question is to use your judgement to determine what action the “joke” in your situation warrants. Remember to always take threats seriously.

      Potential actions:
      a) You determine the “joke” was not severe enough to warrant action.
      b) You decide to give the customer one strike before taking action.
      c) You believe that action is warranted.

      Note: As stated in the original post, you should know and follow all guidelines your Human Resources team or your organization’s policies defines.

      With each of the potential actions, as with the cases in the original post, you should document the situations (at least to yourself), so you have a record of what happened.

      When action is warranted (outcome ‘c’ above), the response depends on whether you (as a function of your position) are empowered to stop serving the customer. Continuing with the numbering of the cases from the original post, here are two more.

      Case #4: Someone overhears a customer, and they are NOT empowered to stop serving the customer.
      In this case, document the situation with your supervisor who should in turn work with HR to determine the appropriate course of action. They should lead the charge. The course of action may be to monitor the situation for continued infractions while removing you from contact with the customer. If you do not get the attention from your supervisor that you feel the situation warrants, consider escalating directly to HR.

      Case #5: Someone overhears a customer, and they are empowered to stop serving the customer.
      In this case, you have to make a judgement call as to whether you want to continue to have this person as a customer. Again, I think it is best to work with HR in these situations. If you don’t want to continue to serve him or her, it certainly seems within your right to stop doing so.

      I hope this helps you.