We are working in a open space, in France, for a big company and there is this colleague that has been working here for 15 years that enjoy mocking everyone for everything. It seems that he just wants to be the "funny one" but sometimes people, including me, find that his comments cannot be classified as respectful jokes and are just harassment. He generally does this at the coffee break when there are a lot of people.


This really happened.

Someone is wearing a pink shirt:

Hey what did we say about pink shirts?

An African man is wearing a shirt with a shiny elephant on it:

Dude, it is not the place to wear that. They are going to mock the whole service because you.


I have only been here for 2 months but I don't like being the one that does not act when something is wrong because some people clearly agreed with me about the fact that this dude can be just rude but people are scared because he has been there for a lot of time now and managers said "he is just stupid, deal with it".


How can I politely tell him that what he is doing should stop without hurting him and without becoming "the guy that has no sense of humor" knowing that my best chance to shut him down is when we are all getting coffee.

4 Answers 4


I’m going to suggest something different from the other two answers currently posted.

If you take this colleague on one side to have a private discussion about this, you are relying entirely on your ability to persuade him that he is incorrect and that he should change his mind.

If you raise the subject, (the subject being the acceptability of garments, not the Rude Colleague's opinion of the acceptability of garments) openly amongst the group you can play more on how willing he is to be seen to be holding an unpopular opinion. Raising the general topic of acceptable shirts in the group allows it to be a wider ‘negotiation’ of the group norm rather than you 'standing up' for or against an individual person. Until this point the culture of the group seems to have been that he leads and they either follow or keep schtum. If you want to change the group culture, you will need to find a way to challenge that existing norm.

That doesn’t mean you have to do it in a way that is likely to ostracise you if people don’t fall in with your view, and it almost certainly means you won’t be able to do it in a ‘one and dusted’ sort of way, changing culture, be it of one person or a group, can take time.

Like many an awkward workplace situation, addressing it lightly can be the key. Rather than having a big confrontation or showdown where you announce that you think he is out of line (you are specifically aiming to ‘bring him along’ rather than ‘take him down’), see if you can come up with a light-hearted seeming intervention which is open for others to jump into the conversation if they want. What that might be depends on you, your character, what your existing ‘banter’ with colleagues etc. is like, but if it was my office it might go something like this:

Rude Colleague: Hey, what did we say about pink shirts?

Before the pink shirt wearer replies, I might jump in with a ‘Did we say they looked super cool and we all wished we looked so good in them?’ with a bright smile. I'd probably be addressing this at the group in general rather than RC in particular.

If RC (Rude Colleague) replies with something about pink shirts being effeminate or whatever his problem is with them, I might gently turn that back with a cheery statement negating it, ‘oh come on, who believes things like that anymore? Would you say that to [insert name of whoever would be the archetype of the opposite of whatever characteristic he alleges] if he was here wearing it? The shirt looks cool.’

and then try to smoothly move the conversation on to a different topic, in a ‘but anyway, who saw Strictly Come Dancing at the weekend?’ Sort of way.

The aim of this would be to, by way of gentle redirection of the conversation and perhaps a very low key chiding, show RC that he is out of step and that this isn't how people talk about other people's clothes any more, if they ever did.

You can expect to have to go through a similar routine whenever he starts complaining about people's clothes until one of you gives in.

If your other colleagues back you up, then RC receives a clear and united message that he is out of step. If no-one backs you up, don’t despair it might be that people will speak to you afterwards and that next time you try to derail RC from an insult they will be more supportive.

It’s possible that you won’t get any support at all from colleagues, in which case your only recourse will be to take it up with management if you feel strongly enough about it and his behaviour is clearly in breach of some standard or guideline for behaviour in the workplace.

If you do speak to management about it and they are in fact perfectly relaxed about how people dress, perhaps see if they would be on board with something positive like having a 'Wear a Wacky Shirt day' to raise funds for a local charity and to show RC just how restrained the group's everyday shirts really are!

  • 6
    +1 I agree, try to shut him down when it happens. You can also just play dumb and address his question seriously: "I haven't heard this, what did we say about pink shirts? ... Oh, who said that? Why did they say that? That's not true at all!" In the end if he tries to say "It was just a joke!" You can always respond with "Oh, I thought jokes were supposed to be funny."
    – David K
    Oct 29, 2018 at 19:39
  • 5
    Good repartee here. I'm taking notes. "oh come on, who believes things like that anymore? " As simple as smart !
    – Meow
    Oct 30, 2018 at 8:18
  • "jump in with a ‘Did we say they looked super cool and we all wished we looked so good in them?’ with a bright smile." - basically a masterclass in sarcasm, I'm not convinced this is the best approach. Sure, taking him to one side may or may not work for certain (do any answers here come with certainty?) but taking him down in front of everybody carries the same risk AND the risk that you divide everybody and find it much, much harder to come back from. The OP is quite new in their role, do they want to make a public spectacle of themselves?
    – Astralbee
    Oct 30, 2018 at 8:59
  • @Astralbee I think the difference is that you are regarding it as a one on one correction situation and I’m viewing it as making the opening move in a renegotiation of the group norm. Even if the RC doesn’t change, views get an airing rather than lack of challenge reinforcing the RC’s behaviour. I didn’t advise sarcasm, I advised an approach appropriate to their existing office culture and gave an example appropriate to mine.
    – user9837
    Oct 30, 2018 at 9:04
  • @Astralbee I've made some edits to my answer to clarify that what I was aiming for very specifically wasn't intended to be a 'public takedown'. Thanks for the feedback.
    – user9837
    Oct 30, 2018 at 10:47

First of all, it is commendable that you want to help your colleagues and improve your work environment. Talking down to people because of their physical appearance is unprofessional in a lot of workplace environments.

It is important to recognise that as you have no authority over him:

  • He does not have to listen to you regardless of you telling him to change his style.
  • It's possible that other people genuinely don't mind the humor that much - so be certain you are actually speaking about a problem that exists.
  • This is generally not your problem to solve. You may at any stage escalate this to your boss or your HR department.

That said, if you do want to do this. I think it's important that the feedback is done in a way that does not violate your colleague's feeling of safety. I would tell them:

  • In private and not in front of everyone. People are much less receptive to feedback given in front of a group because of group dynamics.
  • In a way that demonstrates you care about him and the workplace environment.
  • In a calm manner.
  • In an informal setting.
  • In a way that focuses on objective measurable facts.

So, I would suggest something like:

Hey X, can I buy you some good coffee? There is something private I want to talk to you about.

Then, when you are with him in a setting that is not the office without any other colleagues. Tell him:

I have noticed that there are often remarks in the office regarding the way people dress. I care a lot about our office culture and our team and I care about you - and it's apparent you also care quite a bit about our team.

Then, approach the issue:

I feel very uneasy when jokes are made about other peoples' appearance in the workplace. People Y and Z are struggling with self image issues and it makes me feel uncomfortable when their looks are criticised. I really feel strongly about people feeling safe in the workplace. As a senior colleague in the workplace can I get your advice on this?

This assumes that people Y and Z are actually struggling with self image issues. Replace this with actual consequences of his actions as required.

Note that we are not criticising your colleague, we are not telling him to change his behaviour. We are simply explaining a problem to him and are asking for his advice. You can follow up with clarifying questions such as:

What do you think we can do so that people enjoy their time in the workplace better?

How do you think we can approach this issue?

As a senior colleague who has been here 15 years - what do you think can work well for this issue?

Then listen to what he has to say. Do not presume the solution is for him to stop making jokes completely. It's possible you'll be able to understand the context better (you're there for 2 months) or for him to tone down or any one of a number of solutions for the issue.


I think the best way to deal with this is to signal mild opposition in the moment, not "have a talk" later.

If I was around and somebody (let's say Darren) made a comment like "What did we say about pink shirts", I would respond with either a) slight mock outrage: "Darren!" with an upward inflection, as if you're a little surprised somebody would say something 'so bold', or picking part of the phrase, "the whole company?" with a slight tone of skepticism.

Another approach I would use is to contradict Darren, but without hostility, saying something simple like "Well I like pink shirts" or "nobody told me anything about pink shirts"

Another strategy is to ask people to elaborate. "What's wrong with pink shirts Darren?" This can be said in a slightly playful way, and my experience is that often people who are low-key office bullies will mutter something and change the subject.

In conclusion: I think a private 'talking to' with Darren is the worst option, and it is better to express mild disapproval in the moment in order to send social signals to Darren that his behaviour is frowned upon.

  • +1 for this, although it should be used carefully if on behalf of other people - pink-shirt or elephant-man might or might not also see the funny side.
    – komodosp
    Dec 3, 2019 at 8:42

You say your colleagues agree with you that his comments are rude. You also say your managers have dismissed his behaviour and do not seem willing to act. This means that you will have to be careful about what you say because you won't have any backup from your managers if your attempt backfires and he gets offended. Also though, you may find that while colleagues may agree in principle that he shouldn't say those things, you may find that once you speak up, some people will choose to "stay out of it", and you may not get 100% backup from them either.

Speaking privately to him will be the best thing. If you speak to him in front of others it will embarrass him and potentially divide the group into people who might support you and those that just back away because they don't want to be involved.

If he hasn't said anything rude to you or in front of you in very recent history, I would suggest you wait until it happens again. Firstly, because it may never happen again. If this does seem to have come to a head and colleagues are discussing it then it is possible someone else has had a word with him already. But secondly, if you take him to one side and raise something he said weeks ago, it will just seem like you are digging up something old to cause trouble.

When he says something rude, at the first opportunity discreetly ask to speak to him privately and say something like:

I don't think the remark you made earlier was very nice. It might be meant as humour but it comes accross as rude. I don't think you should make personal comments about people's appearance.

Don't say too much or else he might become defensive. If he doesn't say too much, don't force anything out of him, just leave it with him to think about. See if his behaviour improves.

If he becomes defensive or argumentative; or if after speaking to him once he repeats the behaviour again, perhaps step your private word with him up a notch.

The reason I'm giving you this advice is because it has been mentioned by a few people that your comments to people can be rude and personal. I'm trying to prevent you from overstepping the mark with what you say.

This shows your intention is to help him. It plants the idea in his mind that this is a workplace, there are laws, and that if he isn't careful he could say somethign that gets him into trouble. But your managers don't seem like they would be interested unless what he said was very serious, so you really are not in a position to suggest a particular consequence to his actions. You will have to leave it with him beyond this.

  • 2
    I don't get why this got downvoted because this is a real down to earth answer. I'm affraid to speak up for people because what you said already happened to me when I was younger. I stood up like a white knight and no one followed, it felt really bad ahaha.
    – Meow
    Oct 30, 2018 at 8:15

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