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When The Boss Makes An Inappropriate Comment

Posted by Peter Post  December 22, 2011 07:00 AM

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Yesterday, I was at a lunch meeting. After I’d finished eating (I wasn’t the only one who had finished), one of my bosses asked me if I wanted more. I said “No thank you. I’m finished.” My boss said, “You eat so little!” (I had actually eaten more than a full plateful.) My other boss then said, “That’s why she’s so skinny. She doesn’t eat as much as we do.” I get uncomfortable when people comment on my being skinny, and this isn’t the first time my boss has made a comment like this. I don’t really like these comments in general, but it seems especially distasteful coming from my superior. Is there something I can say next time she says something like this to indicate that I don’t appreciate her observations?

M. C., Flushing, NY

The temptation is to fire back a sharp response like, “And by looking at you, I’m so glad I don’t eat as much as you do!” That’s why I counsel people to think first before acting. While the smart retort can give you immediate gratification (“That’ll show them to make comments about me”), if the person on the receiving end doesn’t take it well, the relationship suffers. In your case the other people are your bosses, so refraining from making the sharp response is a good idea.

That said, you then have two choices. You could grin and bear it. At work, especially dealing with bosses, there’s a time to complain about behavior and a time to let it slide. Certainly, their comments are frustrating and inappropriate, but you have to ask yourself if trying to stop them is worth the effort you’ll have to undertake to make your point.

If you choose to say something, timing as well as words matters. You could try making your case on the spot, but that can backfire. People’s first inclination when challenged about rudeness is to deny it or defend themselves rather than to actually listen to you. Therefore, rather than saying something at the table where your comments may backfire, talk with your bosses one-on-one, in private. You’ll have a better chance of success. When you meet, be careful not to attack the boss, but to address the situation and how it affects you. “Ms. Smith, thank you for seeing me. Something came up at lunch today, and I wanted to touch base with you about it. It’s about the comments about me being skinny. I know it may seem like good-natured banter, but it’s happened a couple of times and makes me uncomfortable. I hope you understand.”

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