What can I do about a homophobic coworker?

Question:

I work in a large office where most of us are in cubicles. One of my coworkers frequently makes homophobic comments. I'm a gay man, married to my partner of many years, and completely open about it. My coworker knows this and never makes derogatory comments about me. In fact, our working relationship is okay. But he often makes comments about "fairies" and "queens," acts in a mocking effeminate manner (with a limp wrist and a catty tone), and jokes about gay sex. We all ignore him, but that hasn't stopped the commentary. What should I do to stop this?

Answer:

What's true on the playground is true in the cubicle farm: Peer pressure and social shaming are very powerful tools to change behavior. Unless you feel that you're at risk of being harmed or you're otherwise uncomfortable with a confrontation, the best way to get a workplace harasser to stop is to state, plainly, that you want him to do so.

Talk to your coworkers about his behavior. Are others offended? Would they like the juvenile comments to stop? If so, plan a conversation with a small group of your office mates and the harasser. You might want to plan it for a lunch or after-work meeting, to create the best opportunity that he will really hear what you are saying. At the meeting, explain that his comments are offensive and unprofessional and that you are personally insulted by them. Allow your coworkers to say what they want about the situation, too.

Hopefully, the harasser is just stuck in some kind of childhood time warp and didn't realize how inappropriate his workplace behavior had gotten. You may well find that he offers an embarrassed apology and that's the end of it.

If not, however, it's time to consider escalating your complaint. For example, if your coworker is belligerent, makes additional homophobic comments at the meeting, or simply doesn't stop his offensive behavior, you should go to your company's HR department. (This should be your first step if you don't feel safe or comfortable approaching the harasser in the first place.)

Before you head to HR, find out whether your state protects employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Believe it or not, in these days of rapidly expanding gay rights and same-sex marriage, it is still legal, under federal law, to discriminate against employees based on their sexual orientation. The same is not always true under state and local law, however. A number of states and hundreds of municipal and local governments have passed laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination. To find out the rules in your state, select it from the map at  Lambda Legal's "In Your State" page; you can look up local rules for your area at the website of your city or county government.

Whether or not you are legally protected from this type of harassment, a sensible employer will take immediate steps to put a stop to it. It's disruptive, unprofessional, and couldn't possibly serve any of the employer's interests. Hopefully, your company will do the right thing and bring your coworker into the 21st century. If not, it's time to consider talking to a lawyer to find out how best to protect yourself and assert your rights.

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