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Handling Underhanded Comments in the Workplace

Working in an office around people with different backgrounds and personalities usually results in some conflict. That conflict can present in a variety of ways, from full-on arguments to underhanded comments. Unfortunately, condescending and underhanded comments made by employees can impact the workplace morale and productivity of an entire team. Learning how to handle condescension in the workplace can help you create a positive work environment and ensure maximum productivity from your employees.

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What are underhanded comments?

An underhanded comment is a seemingly polite or innocuous statement that has a hidden meaning, usually negative in connotation. The underhanded definition often applies to snide remarks or backhanded comments. It might be mocking or sarcastic to make it seem like it’s a joke, but the intent is to be rude or hurtful. The person making the comment may be trying to put the recipient in their place or make them feel insignificant. Snide comments can be about the person’s performance, such as their quality of work or how much work they do, or it can be a personal attack about their looks, behavior or other details.

Examples of condescending behavior

It’s not always easy to spot underhanded comments. Below are some examples of condescending remarks and behaviors that fall into this category:

  • “It must be nice to be the boss’s favorite. You can show up late whenever you want.”
  • “That’s an interesting way to do that. It’s not the way I would do it, though.”
  • “I’m not sure how you landed that account with that pitch, but congratulations.”
  • “That’s a colorful outfit. Do you think your clients will take you seriously when you show up wearing that?”

Other examples of condescending behavior include employees who oversimplify or overexplain things in a patronizing tone, call coworkers demeaning names like chief or sweetheart, correct little mistakes, interrupt and tell a coworker to calm down or make them feel like they’re overreacting when they’re not.

Steps to deal with condescension at work

The first time you hear a snide remark from an employee, you may not know how to handle it. You expect everyone to be professional, and condescending comments don’t qualify as professional. The key to responding, whether it’s a fellow member of the management team or one of your employees, is to maintain your professionalism while dealing with the employee misconduct. Here are some steps you can take to handle condescension at work:

1. Pause before you react

Rather than reacting immediately and saying something you might later regret, pause for a moment to determine the intent. Sometimes, employees don’t intend to be rude, but let comments slip unintentionally. Consider addressing the comment by asking “Are you trying to say [insert implied message]?” If the person didn’t mean to come across as condescending, they’ll likely apologize and the conflict is resolved immediately.

2. Evaluate your relationship

Determine the kind of relationship you have with the person who’s making underhanded comments. If it’s a member of your team, you may want to have a private conversation to discuss their behavior with them directly. If it’s an employee who works under another manager, you may want to consider just changing the subject or ignoring the remark altogether. You might also discuss the situation with their manager to see if the behavior is a common occurrence.

3. Consider the time and place

Before you react, remember that there’s a time and a place for everything. For example, are you alone in your office or are you in a business meeting with many other people? If you’re in a meeting, it isn’t the time or place to address the issue directly. In this situation, ignoring the comment and shifting your attention to other members of your team may be the best way to address it.

4. Have a conversation

If the condescending employee’s behavior is intentional and occurs frequently, it’s time to have a conversation. Document specific instances in advance so you can reference them during the conversation. Schedule a time to meet with the employee one-on-one so you can have an uninterrupted conversation. Mention specific situations in which the employee behaved inappropriately and discuss how it impacted you, as their manager, as well as other members of the team. Discuss how maintaining a positive work environment is your top priority and what the repercussions may be if the behavior continues.

In some cases, the employee may not be fully aware of how their behavior is impacting those around them. In this situation, a single conversation may resolve the issue entirely. If they’re aware, then understanding the action that will be taken if the behavior continues may deter future problems. The situation might warrant an employee reprimand, either written or verbal, to address the severity of the issue.

5. Address the problem with management or HR

If the individual’s behavior doesn’t change after a conversation, it’s time to address the ongoing behavior by filing a formal complaint with the human resources department. Bullying behaviors can impact the morale of an entire department, and if the individual refuses to modify their behavior, disciplinary action must be taken.

Strategies for dealing with underhanded comments

Here are some additional tips you may want to try for managing underhanded comments:

  • Switch subjects: Look for opportunities to change the subject from the underhanded comment and respond with genuine kindness. By shifting the conversation to something positive, you can rapidly change the tone of the exchange and possibly even reduce the likelihood of future comments.
  • Don’t take it seriously: Sometimes, depending on the comment, the best thing you can do is to not take someone’s underhanded comment too seriously. Consider responding with good-natured humor of your own.
  • Remove the opportunity: If you suspect an employee is going to start making underhanded comments, look for excuses to remove yourself from the conversation or the room. If you suspect that the employee is going to make an underhanded comment toward another employee, look for justification for removing that person from the room as well.
  • Make a powerful statement: You can often send a powerful message to the employee with whom you’re speaking by responding with silence or changing the subject. You could also respond with a calm question like, “Is this something that bothers you?”
  • Remember the root of the issue: If an employee comes to you about problems with a colleague who’s making underhanded remarks, remind them that the comments aren’t about them. People frequently make these comments to feel better about themselves, so your team members should never let comments influence how they feel. However, you also shouldn’t ignore the employee’s complaints since it’s likely affecting morale if they’re at the point of complaining.
  • Be assertive: Address the issue in an assertive manner by stating the concern without attacking the employee or displaying any aggressive behavior of your own. Instead, remain calm, analyze the other person’s behavior and motives and discuss it with them in a composed and rational manner.
  • Emphasize positivity: Encourage team members to focus on making each day positive, regardless of the behaviors of others. Remind your team not to allow others to control how they think, feel or what kind of day they’re going to have. Suggest they take a deep breath to stay calm and focus on positive thoughts.

Frequently asked questions about handling underhanded comments in the workplace

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about how to deal with underhanded comments in the workplace:

How can you tell if someone is being condescending?

In general, you can tell that someone is being condescending if you feel put down or belittled when they talk to you. Their tone of voice and body language can also help you determine if the person is being condescending. They might speak in a sarcastic tone and smirk or make mocking gestures as they make the comment if their intent is to belittle you.

What are some examples of other disrespectful behaviors in the workplace?

Outside underhanded comments, other examples of disrespectful behavior include gossip, intimidation, giving coworkers the silent treatment and using profanity. If left unaddressed, these issues can lead to office drama, complaints from employees or formal grievances.

Why do people make underhanded or condescending remarks?

It’s common for people who feel insecure or inferior to resort to condescending behavior. They might act that way to make themselves feel better even if they don’t realize they’re doing it or don’t think they’re insecure. Sometimes, a condescending employee has control issues, so they make comments to try to change a colleague’s behavior.

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