A colleague uses homophobic language in the office. What do I do?

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On multiple occasions, while in the office, a colleague has used derogatory terms to describe gay people. Recently, he used some of those words while in a conversation with me. It made me mighty uncomfortable.

I think he should stop, but I don’t want to be the culture police when such words haven’t been acceptable for decades. I also don’t want to dob him in to HR. That seems like a jerk move.

He’s a friendly fellow, and often comes over to my desk for a chat. Although I enjoy speaking with him, I’m now just poised for what seems like an inevitable transgression. What should I do?

It’s common for there to be a tension between feeling a personal responsibility to confront a person on such an issue and being anxious about potential repercussionsCredit: John Shakespeare

A few years ago, a reader wrote asking about what to do if you observe harmful behaviour in the workplace. They said that although they agreed with many experts that calling it out was, in theory, the best course of action, such a move is often easier said than done. “[F]or many,” they wrote, “it’s either daunting, terrifying, dangerous or a futile exercise.”

That question had similarities to yours, and I think the response may be helpful, but was different in one significant way: you wouldn’t be “calling out” a particularly powerful person; this is a person on roughly the same professional footing as you.

And, at first blush, that may make it seem like the task is easier, without the authority to sideline, censure or sack you, your bigoted colleague doesn’t pose the same risk to your career as a manager or executive who has earned your reprimand. In reality, it’s not that simple.

Difficult conversations like these are so often easier when done in a partnership or as part of a group.

I asked Dr Raymond Trau, a senior lecturer in the Department of Management at Macquarie University, who researches workplace diversity and inclusion, about your concern. He neatly summarised one of the central reasons why experts so often discuss the importance of calling out harmful language.

“Using derogatory terms to describe a group is not only offensive but can cause harm to people who witness it, and to the members of the targeted group. Research has found that displaying even subtle prejudice or discrimination towards members of a minority group is detrimental,” he says.

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