Does ‘I’ve heard worse’ mean you haven’t been offensive

‘But what if Aisha says she’s heard worse before – she not offended!’ That was the question asked during one of our recent Culture Club Workshops for MBA’s at a major UK University. The theme of the day was our game: ‘Can’t You Take a Joke: Calling out Bad Behaviour’. The question reminded me of how frequently people who make offensive comments think it’s perfectly fine if their victim doesn’t complain or even ‘goes along’ with it. If that happens, you know it’s still offensive by two clear hints.

First, if you have to throw another person under the bus to prove your innocence. For example, if you’ve made an Islamophobic joke, don’t excuse yourself to Tariq, a Muslim on your team by saying ‘But Aisha didn’t take offence!!”. You may be lucky enough that Aisha actually defends you, but this now puts her at odds with Tariq. Thanks for that! Secondly, you’re not off the hook even if Tariq says it’s okay.

The truth is Tariq likely has other interests to protect; his relationship to the boss who made the joke, his reputation on the team as an ‘easy going’ guy, even potentially his job itself. What price is a little objectification when pitted against the withdrawal of a colleague’s support? The truth is Tariq’s career progression is like everyone else’s; it’s a war, one that is long and hard-fought. He likely decided your ‘joke’ is not a battle that’s worth fighting. Just be mindful as these battles injure the team…and your reputation as a leader, all the same.