Three Tips for Dealing with Rude Remarks at Work

A reader asks:

I’m pregnant with my third, and I’ve earned the reputation at work as the woman who’s “always pregnant.” All of my pregnancies have been 18 months apart, so I’m sure it seems this way.

How do you respond when people raise their eyebrows because you dared to bring more than two children into the world?

I still can’t figure out why family planning choices seem to be a topic that’s considered open for discussion in any context, let alone an employment one. I don’t know about you, but I’d really rather not discuss my sex life with my co-workers. Sadly, however, it’s a situation that’s all too common for those of us with larger than average families. Having more than 3 kids (or having a third kid if you already have one girl and one boy) seems to be such a bizarre circumstance these days that it MUST be remarked upon.

It’s easier to let the comments roll off your back when it’s a random stranger at the mall or the checker at the grocery store making them, because chances are you won’t see that person often, if ever again.

Juicy Rumours
Juicy rumours” by Erik Pevernagie. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s harder to let the comments go when they come from co-workers, clients, or even your bosses — people with whom you spend a significant portion of your day, and with whom you must, by necessity, establish and maintain an amicable relationship.

In general, I’ve found there are three ways to deal with negative comments about family size or planning in an employment context: defuse with humor, redirect without engaging, or escalating to HR/management.

1. Defuse with Humor

I have an arsenal of humorous responses for every conceivable (ha!) comment that may come my way in the workplace (and elsewhere). I make it a point to practice these in my head, and even role-play with my husband or a close friend, so that I don’t freeze up or have my mind go blank when I’m confronted with a “real life” comment. It really helps!

Q: # kids?! Are you crazy??

A: “Yes, yes I am!”

Q: Was this planned?

A: “When that becomes your business, I’ll let you know!” or “Why do you ask?”

Q: Don’t you know what causes that?!

A: “Yes, and we’re very good at it.” *suggestive eyebrow wiggle*

Q: Are you trying to overpopulate the Earth?

A: “No, just outnumber the idiots.”

Q: Haven’t you ever heard of contraception/birth control?

A: “Yes, why?” [then give them a puzzled glance, as if you can’t imagine why on earth they’d ask you that]

Q: You’re done after this one, right?

A: “We figure we’ll stop once we get an ugly one. Hasn’t happened yet. In fact, they just keep getting cuter!”

or

A: “We’re going for our own reality TV show. Would you like to guest star?”

Q: Are you going to get fixed?/Is your husband going to get fixed?

A: “Why fix what isn’t broken?”

Q: Are you going to quit your job?

A: “Not unless the government bans pregnant women/mothers in the workforce.”

Q: Don’t you have a TV?

A: “If you think TV is better than sex, you’re doing it wrong.”

Or, if you need a response that’s a little “safer” for work, use:

A: “Yes, why?”

Q: How will you pay for all of those college educations?

A: “If we based our family size on if we could pay college tuition, we’d have to have a negative number of kids. Have you seen how much tuition costs these days??”

Q: How are you going to afford five kids?

A: “I plan to write a best-selling book in which we demonstrate how to deflect questions like that one. I’ve had a lot of experience so far.”

Or, depending on the setup of your workplace:

A: “With my substantial raise/bonus.” *wait a beat* “Oh… you didn’t get one?”

Make sure that you have a big smile to go with each comment. The less ruffled you are, the more foolish your interrogator will (hopefully) feel. Another tactic is to respond to impolite questions with another question, such as, “That’s a very personal question, don’t you think?” or, my personal favorite, “Why do you ask?” This will usually stop many people short because they won’t know to respond, or they’ll realize that maybe they shouldn’t be inquiring about such a personal subject.

They might say, “I’m just wondering/just curious,” in which case you can fall back on the immortal words of Barney Snaith: “Then I won’t tell you. I never satisfy curiosity.” [If you’ve never read The Blue Castle, get thee to a library! It’s one of L.M. Montgomery’s best novels.]

Or, if you have a casual dress code, you could invest in one of these T-shirts and bypass any potential conversations.

2. Redirect without Engaging

This strategy is helpful if you’re receiving comments from someone with whom you need to maintain a strictly professional relationship that isn’t conducive to casual joking, such as clients, customers, upper management, or even co-workers on your team with whom you prefer not to socialize with but can’t completely ignore. What you want to do in this case is acknowledge the comment and change the subject, sending a subtle yet definitive message that the topic isn’t grounds for discussion. For example:

Co-worker X: “Good gravy, five kids?! Are you crazy?”

You: “Mmhmm. Say, did you get the memo about the TPS reports? What do you think about the new cover sheet?”

Customer Y: “You’re pregnant AGAIN? Haven’t you ever heard of birth control?”

You: “Yes. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.” [Walk away]

Or, if you can’t walk away because you’re stuck on the phone or behind a counter:

You: “Yes. Is there anything else I can help you with?” or “Yes. Let’s take a look at the red Swingline staplers, they might be more to your liking.”

Client Z: “I think it’s really irresponsible to have so many kids when the world is already overpopulated.”

You: “I see. Have you had a chance to view the sales figures that Brian sent over? We’ve had a lot of success marketing our pieces of flair to Chotchkie’s.”

VP Lumbergh: “If you could let me know if you’re going to have more kids after this one, that’d be great.”

You: [bland smile] “We’ll see. Oops, got to go, I have a meeting with the Bobs in five minutes.”

Or

You: [bland smile] “We’ll see. By the way, when I was working on Saturday I found a glitch in the accounting software…”

Keep acknowledging with short, one- or two-word answers and change the subject. Usually, all but the chronically tactless will get the hint and drop it.

If you happen to be stuck in a workplace with the chronically tactless, I’m terribly sorry. All you can really do in that case is make your point clearly and firmly. “That’s personal; I’d rather not discuss it. Let’s talk about Client Project Alpha.” Or, “I’d really rather not discuss my family planning choices at work. Do you know the status of the deliverables for Project Omega?”

3. Escalate to HR/Management

This solution is a last resort, and should be rare (in theory), but it is a viable one if you’re constantly receiving egregiously inappropriate comments or if one specific co-worker seems fixated on your situation, to the point of giving you constant grief about your family size or pregnancy status. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) specifically mentions pregnancy in its fact sheet regarding workplace harassment:

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.

The EEOC also specifies what workplace harassment is not:

Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

Even if the negative comments you receive don’t rise to the level of workplace harassment, you can still take action. The first step is to tell the your interrogator, politely but firmly, that your family size isn’t up for discussion, as you would for the chronically tactless. “Milton, I’d rather not discuss my family planning choices with you. Please don’t bring it up again.”

If he (or she) tries to pass it off as a joke or accuses you of being oversensitive, remain calm but firm. “Nina, I’ve made my position clear on this. My family planning choices aren’t something I discuss at work. Please don’t bring it up again.”

After that, you document, document, document. If it gets bad enough, you go to your manager and/or HR – or even the boss of the person giving you grief. Stick with the facts: “I’ve asked Milton repeatedly to stop commenting on my family size but I’m afraid his comments persist. He’s brought up the topic 5 times in the last 3 days. It’s making me very uncomfortable, and I’m having trouble focusing on my work when he’s around as a result. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this?”

Any manager or HR rep worth their salt will have a chat with Milton and tell him to cut it out or face consequences (and then enforce said consequences if Milton fails to comply).

Sadly, not all managers or HR reps know how to deal with this type of harassment, and some will try to downplay it or brush it off. If that happens you can try go up the chain, but if that isn’t possible (such as in smaller workplaces) you may have to suck it up and deal with it (while starting a job search, if feasible, in order to get a new job with competent employers). Keep documenting, though – in the worst case scenario, you might have grounds for an EEOC complaint if the harassment becomes pervasive enough.

Thankfully, I’ve never been in that particular situation; I’ve always been able to use strategies #1 and #2 to defuse and deflect comments about my family size in the workplace, and it’s occasionally led to some interesting discussions regarding NFP and related topics.

Do you have any favorite comebacks or responses to comments about your larger-than-average family size? Please share in the comments!