Scripts to Address Harassment Directly
In many cases, addressing harassment or inappropriate behavior when it happens can stop a molehill from becoming a mountain. You could be doing yourself and everyone else a favor by calling out harassing behavior at the time of the incident. Even if you wait to address the issue until after you’ve collected your thoughts and assessed the risks, you may be able to stop the issue from continuing or escalating.
Being prepared with a script ahead of time creates a form of muscle memory that can kick in once the initial shock response has worn off.
The first step to resolving harassment, per the EEOC and many company harassment policies is to speak directly to the harasser and let them know their behavior is “unwelcome”.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the power, the know-how or the circumstances that allow them to do this safely. But having a script may help you consider this option, and give you a safe way to stop inappropriate behavior without the risks of going to HR.
We only recommend addressing harassment directly, if the harassment falls into the ignorant or indirect types of harassment [see The Workplace Harassment Meter]. We recommend you assess your risks of direct communication here: Should You Address Harassment Directly.
Note: If you don’t feel comfortable speaking directly with the person behaving inappropriately towards you, consider taking an assist and sending The BeeMail
The Wolf and The Bee acts as your “representative” and sends a diplomatic and discreet email (“The BeeMail”) directly to your colleague without mentioning your name.
Finally, remember to document the interaction and any further follow-ups, problems, or conversations just in case the situation escalates. You can find our documentation templates HERE.
We have collected ideas based on general work situations. Get comfortable with one or more of these scripts – find something you like, and reword it in your own voice and then practice it out loud. Get really comfortable with your go-to script so you are ready to deploy a response if and when you need to address inappropriate behavior in the future.
Remember to consider your goals and comfort level with being assertive as you practice your response.
Keywords to Disrupt Behavior
There are some words in our culture that trigger a pause and evaluation response in our brains. Like a zebra hearing a bird call in the Serengeti, these words act as warning bells.
Oftentimes, when the offender hears one of these words it will disrupt their train of thought and actions, and trigger a pause. This pause should give them time to think about what they are saying or doing and make adjustments.
These keywords can be diplomatic or assertive. They can be used to get the behavior to stop, while allowing the aggressor to save face, which lowers the risks for you.
Here are some keywords with the power to stop people in their tracks.
Find one or two you like, add them to your script library, and the next time someone behaves inappropriately, pull out one of these keywords.
- “That’s inappropriate.”
- “That joke is inappropriate for work.”
- “That joke/behavior crossed the line into inappropriate.”
- “That makes me uncomfortable.”
- “I’m uncomfortable with this behavior.”
Irrelevant / Not Productive
- “That question is irrelevant to the issue at hand.”
- “This conversation is not productive. Let’s move on.”
- “That behavior is not ok”
- “That question is not ok to ask.”
- “I think we all need to take a time-out.”
- “I think its best we take a time out before we proceed any further.”
- “Stop. Don’t go any further.”
- “We need to stop this conversation right now.”
None of Your Business
- “No offense, but that is none of your business.”
Crossed a Boundary
- “You’ve crossed a boundary.”
Scripts for Work Situations
Because work situations vary, we have included script ideas for some general workplace scenarios.
In the moment: A diplomatic approach
Taking a diplomatic approach is a good option to stop behavior quickly without taking a big risk. This approach focuses on simply stopping the behavior from continuing. These examples also work in a group setting, with people more senior than you, or with close working colleagues you don’t want to be at odds with.
- “We are at work, you know.”
- “Let’s change the subject.”
- “Changing the subject, have you seen (movie / show / game) yet?”
- Change the subject – ask a question. “Did you catch the game last night?”
- “And that’s my cue to go.”
In the moment: One on one – a more assertive approach
Taking an assertive approach is a more direct way to get the offending party to stop the behavior and acknowledge their actions, and get them to take accountability and responsibility for adjusting their future behavior.
- “I’m going to do you a big favor right now and let you know that wasn’t OK.”
- “That was completely inappropriate. I’d like to move past this quickly, but I’ll need an apology and a promise you won’t do that again.”
- “That behavior is not OK. I think an apology is in order so we can move past this.”
- “Let me stop you right there. I’m not okay with that behavior.”
- “I think you have me confused with one of your buddies but I don’t want to hear that while I’m at work.”
Early in my career, I was working with a talented gentleman who was in charge of our events. He was very personable, friendly and everyone loved him. At one event some clients and colleagues joined us for a couple of drinks. Everyone started telling stories, and my colleague’s stories and comments got more inappropriate as the evening wore on. It appeared to me that everyone was having a good time. I was young and in a room of sophisticated professionals. Even though I didn’t feel comfortable with the topics, I didn’t want to say anything, so I smiled and stayed quiet.
The next week we were both called into HR separately because the clients were upset with the stories being told that evening. As a result they did not feel comfortable continuing doing business with our team or company. I thought about how if I had changed the topic I could have saved us all from the embarrassment and fallout. My colleague and I had no clue that anyone was uncomfortable, but he must have known his stories were inappropriate for a work event. I thought about that situation many times and the things I should have said. A few years later I got my chance to say something under similar circumstances.
In the moment: In a group with most people encouraging or participating in the behavior
If you find yourself in a group and it appears everyone is participating in inappropriate behavior at some level or another, it can be difficult to speak up. No one wants to be a fuddy-duddy or be the PC police. Here are options to redicrect the conversation to safer ground.
- “I think that is as far as we’ll take this conversation. Has anyone seen the news about…?”
- Change the subject by asking another person in the group a question.
- “Taylor is going to quickly apologize before we change the subject.”
- “Please excuse Taylor for a moment. We will be right back.” Take the person aside to let them know they need to stop and apologize to the group.
- Change the subject by asking Taylor a question (works well if he is the client) “Taylor, I hear you are doing some exciting things with…”
- To the group “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an example of what NOT to say at work.”
As an ally / witness to someone being targeted
Being an ally can be tricky. But there are good reasons to do it. Harassment doesn’t just affect the person being harassed. It affects team and company culture and the company bottom line. Furthermore, you can provide an example to others on ways they can stand up to inappropriate behavior moving forward.
- “You can’t ask that question.”
- “This is a place of business. You can’t say that here.”
- “That was rude.”
- “Nobody needs to hear that at work.”
- “Dealing with that talk/behavior isn’t something anyone should have to deal with while they are at work.”
- “Stop. You need to apologize to Taylor.”
Provide a heads-up
I have had work colleagues make some ignorant comments. You are doing your colleague a favor by giving them a heads up and giving them a chance to address their behavior before it escalates.
- “You can’t be saying that at work. You need to apologize to Taylor right now before this becomes an issue.”
- “I know you like that joke/story, but it is not appropriate for work.”
Responding to Dismissal or Minimization
One thing that has stopped me from speaking up in the past is the fear that I won’t be believed, or that what I say will be dismissed, excused, or minimized in some way. Or worse, I will become a target. As it turns out, I’ve heard a few dismissive and minimizing responses over my career.
If someone responds by dismissing or minimizing your statement, usually it is because they are trying to get you to back off or they want to save face. You may have surprised them, and they may behave defensively.
Deescalating a situation like this is always an option to consider, especially if you want the issue to be resolved quickly.
All of the script examples below let you hold your boundaries while allowing the other person to step up and take accountability, instead of escalating the situation.
If someone responds by dismissing, or minimizing your statement
- “I gave you the courtesy of coming to you to resolve this directly. I expect the same courtesy. Apologize so we can move on.”
- “I came directly to you because I don’t want this to become a problem for either of us. I want us to be able to move forward without this becoming an issue.”
- “Did I make a mistake coming to you directly?”
- “I was hoping you would apologize and we could move on. I’ll give you some time to think about what I said.”
Responses to avoidance or aggression
In response to “It was a joke!”
- “Not appropriate for work.”
- “How is that joke appropriate for work?”
In response to “You misunderstood.”
- “I heard you loud and clear. I expect an apology so we can move on.”
- “Misunderstanding or not, it was not appropriate. How can we put this behind us?”
In response to a double down “What are you going to do? Tell HR?”
- “I prefer you apologize and promise it won’t happen again.”
- “So you agree HR would say your behavior is inappropriate. I would prefer an apology and a promise you won’t do that again – but it’s your choice.”
After The Fact
After taking some time to process, you can address the issue
We run through tips on how to address harassment after it has happened on the Address Harassment Directly page. Here is a quick outline.
- I wanted to talk to you about what happened [at location or date].
- Briefly summarize the inappropriate behavior.
- Summarize how their behavior impacted you. Use “I” statements where possible: “I feel that type of joke is inappropriate for work. I felt uncomfortable when…”
- Provide the resolution you need to see: “I would like an apology.” “I think an apology to the team is in order.” “This behavior needs to stop immediately.”
- Take time to listen to their response.
- Once a resolution has been committed to, provide an incentive for moving on: “Thank you for your apology. I’m glad we can put this incident behind us.”
Script Ideas Specific to Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment includes unwanted flirting, asking personal questions, and propositions. Being clear and firm is the best approach. Subtlety is not your friend when you are communicating boundaries. Be clear and specific so there is no misunderstanding.
- I am not interested.
- I don’t date people I meet at work. Don’t ask again.
- You’ve crossed the line.
- Enough already.
Crossing Personal Space
You are in my personal space
- “Please step back. You keep entering my personal space.”
- “Please move your chair over. I need personal space.”
Third Party: Customers, Clients, Vendors
Navigating inappropriate behavior from customers, clients, and vendors (and other third parties) can put you in a challenging situation that requires a delicate balance between diplomacy and directness.
- Thanks for your interest, but I’m just not interested.
- That is not on the menu tonight or ever.
- That is not a service we provide.
- I am going to have [person’s name’] take over going forward. They will be able to get you what you need.
Confronting someone, communicating boundaries, and holding people accountable for their actions is uncomfortable. Unfortunately, dealing with harassment, bullies and discriminatory behavior is also very uncomfortable.
Using a script is one way you can feel more confident addressing an incident to stop inappropriate behaviors. You may have to assert yourself more than once, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you will be at addressing these problems early.
Remember to document all interactions. If you feel comfortable doing so, send an email to follow up and document the conversation so you have a record.
Let us know if you’ve used a script that works. Share your experience in our Facebook group HERE.