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updated: 11/18/2012 7:31 AM

Work Advice: Is there a grown-up in the office?

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  • If co-workers are using offensive language around you, try some low-key ways to let your co-workers know you're offended.

    If co-workers are using offensive language around you, try some low-key ways to let your co-workers know you're offended.
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Q: I'm two years into my first job since college. In the past I've had trouble managing stress, but I thought I got along well with everyone. Recently, while picking up papers from the printer, I found an instant message conversation between two co-workers that one of them had accidentally printed. In it, they complained about how obnoxious I was and speculated about whether I'd been abused by my parents. I was hurt, because I had considered these co-workers my friends. I tried to professionally discuss the incident with them. They apologized for "being stupid," but I suspect they just regretted my finding the printout. I'm still crushed. Is there anything I can do now, or did I miss my chance?

A: Given your co-workers' vague apology, I'm not sure your exposure to this scathing exchange was entirely accidental.

Cynical speculation aside, you've learned one or two valuable things here: (1) These people are not friends you need, and/or (2) Your past behavior -- my money's on that "trouble managing stress" -- has made a bad impression. If there's any truth to the latter, you've been handed a clear (if painful) hint that you need to examine your behavior -- with a professional, if necessary -- and resolve to do better.

Things probably won't ever be right again with Heckle and Jeckle, but I'm confident you'll have chances in your career to start fresh with new -- and more mature -- co-workers.

Q: Co-workers at the small company where I work use the word "retarded" in a way that offends me. I have volunteered for years at a summer camp for teens with Down syndrome, and my family is involved with the special needs community. Friends have started an organization to "end the offensive use of the r-word." Can you think of a way to bring up this issue that won't make my co-workers uncomfortable around me?

A: People tend to develop more sensitivity toward groups they have a personal connection to.

Be that connection.

Keep camp mementos on your desk as conversation starters. If your company allows fundraisers, hold a drive for the camp or your friends' organization. Those are low-key ways to let your co-workers know this issue is close to your heart.

If the offensive slang version of the word is being tossed about, and you're moved to speak up, you can say -- sadly, not huffily -- "Aw. I know some awesome kids who have Down syndrome, so it's painful hearing that word used like that."

If some shame-resistant jerk then starts slinging the slur just to provoke you, best ignore the bait ... but I'd understand if you let slip a resigned, "Whatever makes you feel better about yourself."

• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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