Bullying is a huge problem at work. Illegal discrimination is a huge problem at work. Rudeness is also a problem, and sometimes we mistake the latter for the former. And there aren't bright-line differentiations among the three. But, sometimes, it's a good idea to start with the assumption that's it's rudeness and see where you go from there.

As an example, I got the following email from a reader.

I have a boss that is extremely condescending and a control freak, so to speak. She is rather rude and makes a comment about my appearance quite often, specifically my nails. I wear my nails with the latest trends but not anything that would consider a disturbance in my work. She makes comments on how "they're just crazy" and "I don't understand how you wear your nails that way". I've grown quite self-conscious of my nails whenever I need to work with my boss in the office (she mainly works from home) to the point that I hide my hands when I work with her. She picks on me in front of coworkers and just laughs as if it's all fun and games. Is this a work violation I can bring up to HR superiors? We are both in the HR department of our company and I am not in violation of our companies dress code.

Of course, this is coming from an HR department, where everyone should know better. And I'm the first to criticize HR for bad behavior, so don't worry about me protecting my own. I responded to this email with the following message and suggestion:

I can't think of stylish nails as being indicative of a protected class, so I'd say she's just a jerk. 

I'd say to her, " Jane, you often make comments about my appearance. I dress according to the dress code. If there is something specific I need to change to be more effective at my job, please let me know. Otherwise, I'd appreciate it if you stopped commenting on my appearance."

There's a chance she has no idea how often she says something negative to you. 

My letter writer took my advice to heart and had this conversation with her boss. The response? An apology!

While this won't stop all bad behavior at the office or anywhere else, sometimes people are inadvertently rude. I can see a situation where the boss couldn't understand why someone would want to spend time and money on nails, and because she was a bit socially awkward, she found herself commenting on it over and over again. 

This frequently happens when interactions aren't daily, or where one person thinks it's a fun joke where everyone thinks it's funny. (I love Hostess cupcakes and a kale-loving friend always teases me about eating chemicals. I always remind her that no-one ever got e-coli from a preservative-laden cupcake. It's all in good fun, but I can see how someone could hear the same sentence and think she was judging my eating habits or I was judging hers.)

When someone repeatedly says rude or inappropriate things to you, the best start is to ask them to stop. You may have to go through this several times, and it wouldn't surprise me if this boss made another comment about fingernails. An accidentally rude person will eventually stop after being asked and reminded.

Of course, if this is not just about something minor like cupcakes or fingernails, you should escalate it. If it were a joke about ethnicity, sexuality, or age, you'd want to tell them to stop, document the incident, and, if it persists, report it to HR. (Which, I realize, makes this situation even more difficult because everyone involved is in Human Resources. But, all HR people understand documentation and letting your HR boss know you are documenting her lousy behavior can be quite useful.)

If the boss were a real bully, a sincere apology wouldn't be forthcoming. Instead, it would be a comment like, "you're so sensitive about your stupid nails." Then you need to take a different path.

But many rude people can be corrected with a call-out and a bit of confidence. Give it a try.