How to return when served a backhanded compliment

  1st July 2019       Robert Bond FIRP
 Accounting & Finance, Engineering, Science & Space, Executive Search, Human Resources, IT & Software Solutions, Office & Commercial

Let’s talk about the backhand. Despite being in prime tennis territory with Wimbledon on the cards, we’re not talking about Nadal’s racquet masterstroke, or even about a wad of money passed secretly from one hand to another. In this blog, we’re addressing the issue of backhanded compliments in the workplace.

The dream office is one where everyone strives for success and authentically congratulates colleagues on their achievements, without a hint of cynicism or malice. Yet in many workplaces, green eyed co-workers find processing other people’s triumphs rather testing. This often results in backhanded compliments – up there with sarcasm and the passive-aggressive response in terms of casual insults.

While, on one hand, the remarks and language in a backhanded compliment sounds congratulatory, they often contain sly digs or hidden agendas designed to undermine success and demoralise. Backhanded compliments in the workplace can come in many forms, and are not always performance related either. Some common examples follow the lines of:

  • “Well done on your promotion. You’ve done so well considering you don’t have any specific industry qualifications.”
  • “You’re surprisingly professional and competent, given your tender age.”
  • Your report is brilliant but it’s a shame the trade press are questioning the research methods.”
  • “I love your outfit today: it really makes you look really slim.”

It’s hard not to bite but there are coping mechanisms. Here’s Bond Williams’s guide to acing your response to the backhander, so the shine isn’t taken off your success:-

Smile sweetly but say nothing – not rising to the bait is often the best way of dealing with a backhanded compliment and a quick smile is often all that’s needed to diffuse the situation. It’s akin to ‘not feeding the troll’ – your silence sends a message that you don’t value their comment enough to respond.

Offer thanks – killing cruelness with kindness is another great tactic. Those delivering the backhanded compliment are often fishing for a reaction or heated exchange. A polite ‘thank you’ will serve to cut dead any further conversation.

Acknowledge only the positive– a backhanded compliment will almost always be delivered in two parts: the positive first and the negative second. A prime workplace example is “Congratulations on beating your targets this month. Shame you didn’t do the same in May.” Acknowledging the positive shows that flippant comments are not the professional way to deal with previous poor performance.

Address the insult directly – sometimes a backhanded compliment can feel like an assassination of your personal character, as much as your professional performance, and may damage a working relationship with a colleague. If you find yourself genuinely hurt by the comment, say so.

Use humour – some people use a backhanded compliment as a defence mechanism to cover their own failings or to feel better about their self. Using self-depreciating humour is a good way to take the moral high ground without being mean in return.

Ask for advice – if the backhanded compliment undermines an achievement and your colleague insinuates they could have done better, ask them for their advice on how you could improve next time. This sort of double bluff response will be totally unexpected. Take comfort if they decline to share their wisdom or if they do take you up on the offer, you may learn something valuable for the future.

Robert Bond FIRP


Rob has a background in Sales and IT recruitment with over 25 years of experience in these sectors. He heads up the IT and Accountancy Divisions of Bond Williams and is also responsible for Bond Williams internal Operations and Finance. Alongside Claire, he is responsible for the overall growth and …

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