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Apr 24

Offended or Offensive – Which One Are You

Trigger Warning: business related content.

The word “offended” seems to be prevalent in the workplace. We have to be careful not to be offensive or someone might become offended. You might not even know you are offensive. Ah, therein lies the rub. How do you avoid being offensive in a world where almost every comment or action could potentially offend someone? Are you a person who is insensitive to others or one who is more easily offended by others?

First of all, what would be a common person’s definition of offensive workplace behavior? Well, this has changed over time. What might have been tolerated in the Mad Men era is not acceptable now. The courts have set some guidelines on scenarios which we cannot discriminate (age, race, religion, etc.) and we could start there. Derogatory comments, jokes or stories about people’s gender, religion, etc. would be considered offensive by most people in the modern workplace.

But I see another level. There are less obvious areas where we can be offensive. For movies, blog posts and social media updates you may start to see the words “trigger warning” or a bright yellow triangle warning sign with an exclamation point and a TW (trigger warning). This alerts people, with more specific sensitivities, about content that might be offensive to them. For example, someone who has experienced abuse or has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may become anxious, upset or emotionally triggered by a movie that has scenes of violence or military attacks.

In the workplace how do we avoid triggering people or suffering through conversations that are upsetting? Here are a few thoughts:

– Be aware of social trends and the law. Times have changed and if you have been in the workforce more than 20 years, you need to be aware of current social issues and know that “old school” behavior is not brushed off. You don’t have to agree with where society seems to be going, you just need to understand the varied opinions.

– Know your co-workers beyond the surface level. If someone has had a death in the family, is struggling financially or advocates strongly for a cause, certain topics may cause anxiety or strong reactions. It is always best to avoid controversial topics at work. Think before you speak.

– Speak up for yourself. Your colleagues are not mind-readers. They will not know you are a strict vegetarian or an animal rights advocate if you don’t tell them. That still doesn’t mean you might not have to join them at the chuck wagon barbecue, but it’s more likely you will be offered the veggie-burger. Most people are not out to offend. Be understanding and patient as people learn to adjust.

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