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  • Writer's pictureRalph Kellogg

The Time I Confronted the Workplace Bigot

I was in my late 20s the first time I encountered a bigoted co-worker.

It all began when a co-worker, who, up to that point, I considered friendly and approachable, made a series of remarks that were deeply offensive and discriminatory about gay people. I was not out at work, still relatively new in my job, and working for a conservative organization.

It was not the first time I heard disparaging remarks against LGBTQIA2S+ people in the workplace. I accepted the comments as a fact of the work world. At the time, there were no protections for gay people in the workplace, and I knew the company could fire me because I was gay. However, it was the first time that I worked face-to-face with someone who had no reservations about saying such horrible things.

Initially, I was taken aback by the blatant display of bigotry in a professional setting. The longer I worked with the co-worker, the more comfortable he became sharing comments with me. Mind you, the co-worker knew nothing about me. But he shared his views on women, people of color, LGBTQIA2S+ people.

Until I encountered the co-worker, I thought of myself as someone with the courage to speak up if I saw blatant discrimination. The comments made by the co-worker violated my values, and they were just disgusting and toxic.

I was scared to say something, which happened to many people. I was scared to escalate issues. I did not want to create waves. I did not want to be viewed as a troublemaker. I did not want to lose my job.

I thought someone else would escalate these issues. If I knew the behavior was wrong, then other people knew the behavior was wrong.

I tried to avoid the co-worker. I attempted to overlook the behavior. I even went so far as to think that he was older and grew up in a different time. He didn’t mean the things he said.

The breaking point came about at about the sixth month of working with this guy, which occurred during Gay Pride Month. The Gay Pride Parade was being advertised, and the co-worker said, “There’s no way I’d watch a group of mincing f*gs prancing around.”

I left work that day and sat with the comment all night. I fumed, cried, and thought I could not continue to work with this guy. I resolved to say something to the co-worker on the next day. What I felt in my gut was that remaining silent was not an option. By ignoring the behavior, I was perpetuating a culture of intolerance and discrimination.

If I lost my job, I would find another one. But, regardless of what happened, I was not going to listen to the garbage anymore.

Confronting my co-worker was scary; I had never done anything like this in my life. I knew it would require courage to address the issue directly, especially considering the potential backlash or discomfort it might cause.

I approached my co-worker by telling him that I was gay, and I expressed my concerns in a respectful and constructive manner. I told him I found his comments disrespectful and demeaning. I asked that we try and move forward with a sense of mutual respect.

I told my co-worker that I would report him to the manager and human resources if the comments did not stop. I had not documented any of the comments or days they occurred – it would be my word against his. But I felt like I needed leverage in this situation.

To my surprise, the co-worker did not say a word to me after I shared my thoughts. In fact, he basically stopped talking to me altogether. He did stop making bigoted comments, at least around me. I also did not hear him make his water-cooler jokes to the other guys in the office who frequently stopped by his desk.

The conversation was one of the most difficult I have ever had. I don’t know if my co-worker felt ashamed or embarrassed for making the remarks and being called out. I know that taking a stand against something that I found so ugly reinforced the understanding that sometimes you must be willing to step forward to try and change things, even if it means you may lose something of value, like your job.

For anyone who is facing discrimination in the workplace, my advice as someone who has experienced discrimination and as a Human Resources professional are:

  • Document the concerns.

  • Ensure that you highlight the dates and the context of the situation.

  • Review the organization’s employee handbook, policies, and procedures regarding discrimination and bullying.

  • Have a conversation with your co-worker, provided you feel safe and comfortable.

  • If you do not feel safe or comfortable confronting your co-worker, escalate the concerns to management and Human Resources.

Everyone is responsible for challenging prejudice and promoting a culture of acceptance and respect. Confronting intolerance head-on can create a more inclusive and equitable workplace for everyone.

Confronting a situation like the one I described is not easy – but letting something like this go unchecked implicitly allows the behavior to continue.

Reach out, seek support, and devise a plan to confront the issue respectfully but directly. 


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