During the first week at my new tech job, I met so many white guys in sneakers and hoodies my head was spinning. It was only a matter of time before I mixed them up.
One morning I was getting coffee and the inevitable happened.
“Good morning Todd!” I said cheerily to my new coworker.
Oh no. Now I’d done it. I panicked and said the first thing that came to mind.
“Haha, all you white guys look the same.”
They fired me that afternoon. I only wish that story wasn’t true, and good thing it’s not.
Here’s the truth. The chances of you saying something racist, sexist or just plain stupid at work are pretty high, especially when you are actually racist, sexist or just plain stupid.
Sure, sometimes you can blame it on the day drinking, but in the moment you’ll need a good way to recover from being inappropriate at work. Here are 8 ways to do just that.
1. Agree that it was bad
Be truly astounded at yourself. Say something like, “Oh my God, that was absolutely horrible, I can’t believe I just said that.” Hang your head in shame and shudder with grief. Cry.
Be so overwhelmed with pain and regret that your coworker can only have pity on you. End the conversation by thanking your coworker profusely for teaching you kindness and tolerance, so they’ll feel too guilty to go to HR.
2. Blame it on the media
You can always say you actually read or heard that inappropriate comment on the TV.
If your coworker is conservative, say you read in the goddamn liberal media. If he or she is liberal, say you saw it on a worthless Fox News program. You may even go so far as to say that you were actually relaying the joke ironically, in order to highlight the ignorance that exists in our society (although that might be stretching it).
3. Look over there
Creating a distraction is a skill we should all have. Never take for granted your ability to spot something interesting out of the corner of your eye and take attention away from your thoughtlessness.
4. Over-explain the joke
As soon as you explain a joke, it immediately becomes unfunny. Once the humor is lost, you look more like a harmless bafoon than a malicious criminal.
But don’t stop there. Make sure to offer some reasoning for the comment that makes you seem sympathetic. You can break the joke or comment into pieces, so that your coworker forgets what the original comment was and finally loses interest altogether.
5. Fight for your innocence
Tell your coworkers to lighten up. Call one of them a Nazi. OK maybe don’t do that.
But do point out the fact that this is supposed to be a safe environment where you can be yourself. Question how you’re supposed to be creative in a place that’s so suffocating. Tell your coworkers that your joke isn’t the problem, the real problem is their oppressive fear of anything that isn’t politically correct, when they know full well that subversive thought always rises to the forefront eventually.
Say that it’s attitudes like theirs that keep the entire company from differentiating itself in a market saturated with formulaic crap. They’ll end up seeing what you said as some sort of genius.
6. Say it was taken out of context
Context is key. That’s something you can say to sound smart and deflect attention from your awful taste.
From there, you might not even need to explain yourself. Indeed, the less you say the better. But if you do want to explain yourself, create a story around what you said that makes it sound plausibly legitimate. This could be any historical fact that gives the comment some deep perspective that your makes your coworkers feel so enlightened they forget they were offended.
7. Distract with company gossip
Distractions need not be physical. Ask if your coworker heard about the latest stock price, where the next company offsite is going to be or if Jan and Bill have finally decided to go public with their relationship.
Timing is key. Be sure to divert attention to another subject just after the horror washes over their faces, but before they start to respond with how offended they are.
8. Act like you mean it
Repeat what you said and stand by it with confidence. Say, hey, it might be offensive, but you’re not afraid to be offensive which is why you got promoted last quarter. Boom.