How to handle working with an offensive client

Knowing your values is key in dealing with rude or offensive behavior.

How to handle working with an offensive client

It can be a shock when clients behave in ways that are rude or offensive. You may be working with them on a presentation or simply checking in on a project, for example, and all of a sudden someone is cracking a racist or sexist joke. How you react will depend on a lot of things — the relationship you have with that client, the severity of the offense (was the client offensive, or simply rude?) and your own personal value system.

Here are a few common situations you may encounter, along with some tips for addressing them.  

Annyoing politics

Let this go. If your clients say things that may indicate their political views don’t align with yours, simply file that away in your head. As long as they’re polite, there’s no need to push back.

Chronic rudeness

I’ve fired clients for being chronically disrespectful to people on my team. My whole business model depends on attracting awesome people and keeping them happy, so their sense of safety and wellbeing is more important than any one client. It’s hard to do great work for someone when interacting with them stresses you out.

Not everyone has that luxury, but you should still let your supervisor know if a client is frequently being rude to you by belittling you or speaking harshly. Keep in mind that after your supervisor looks into it, the whole thing may be chalked up to differing personalities — one person’s no-nonsense is another person’s rude. However, if a client’s behavior is chronically unprofessional or abrasive, that needs to be addressed. If it isn’t, it may be that your employer’s values don’t match up with your own.

The racist or sexist “joke”

I’m not one to usually let racist or sexist comments or “jokes” go. If I feel I can push back when it happens, I might give the client the all-purpose, raised-eyebrow “wow.” If I don’t feel like it would make a meaningful impact to say something in the moment, I’m likely to bring it up with them or their boss later on.

Even if you don’t have the authority or standing to push back on a client at the time, it’s vital to report this sort of behavior up the line as soon as possible. Document what you heard or save email communications to share with your manager.

If you’re the boss

If you’re in a position of authority at your organization, you have a duty to take your employees’ complaints seriously. Create an atmosphere that makes it safe for them to report out-of-line behavior and think through your own response. Handling such situations thoughtfully is the mark of a competent, sensitive leader.

I know I want my employees to let me know immediately the first time someone said something sexist or racist, for example. That kind of behavior is incompatible with our company values, and I have little tolerance for it.