Having an Effective Talk About Inappropriate Behavior

Red marker drawing of a male and female sitting at a table. There is tension.

By Roger with help by Allana

Published December 2019

I confess I am self-conscious while writing tonight. You see, I’m not an expert or a trained professional at dealing with other people and their behavior. I’m kind of a regular person who happens to care. My co-author likewise is not an authority. We started writing this because the exercise was hard and it pushed us to improve exactly in the ways that we struggled as allies and leaders.

One thing we did was attend a Minnesota Theater Alliance seminar about Preventing Sexual Misconduct as the first in the PAHRTS series, taking place over the next several months. I wanted to know what I could do, personally and directly, when I ran into bad behavior. This session was presented by Yvonne Cournoyer, the Sexual Violence Prevention Coordinator at Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. The goal of this session was that we would become people willing to take step in before it was too late.

As a group, we examined scenarios where we practiced defining, understanding, and identifying behavior to see if it was or might become misconduct. Situations were sorted on a spectrum from healthy, to concerning, to harmful, and then to illegal. Some actions were hard to categorize. For example, were comments about physical appearance concerning or harmful? Where did crude jokes fall and what caused a joke to slide down the scale? To answer those questions, we had to agree that impact – not intent – matters. Crude comments might be spoken to diffuse tension through humor, but if they make someone feel unwelcome or afraid – they become harmful.  Frankly, this portion of the day did not come easily but it was nothing compared to roleplaying with a peer.

Yvonne gave us a simple list of steps to take to start a difficult conversation in an attempt to address a concerning or harmful behavior before it escalates out of hand. Having a simple but specific plan and the opportunity to practice when the stakes are lower, makes having that conversation more likely to be successful in the future.  The list is as follows:

  1. Factually discuss the behavior witnessed or experienced.
  2. Express opinions or feelings that this experience caused.
  3. Set a boundary.
  4. State a remedy.

Here are a few scenarios with possible responses. Consider the responses that we came up with below from both perspectives. Do you find them clear, approachable, and likely to elicit a helpful behavior? Below that, you’ll find scenarios where you can practice filling in the responses yourself.

A coworker takes embarrassing pictures of you at rehearsal and posts them on social media. You decide to call them.

Clumsy: “Hey – those pictures from your page. Yeah, you might wanna take those down.” 

Why is this clumsy? It does not express opinions or feelings this experience has caused. It also does not set a boundary.

Good Response: “Hey – I saw you post a picture from yesterday’s rehearsal. I wish you would have asked me before posting something so personal; I really feel exposed. Rehearsal is a private space where people should be allowed to feel vulnerable and safe, so posting them without consent violates that trust. I want you to delete these pictures and not post any more rehearsal pictures.”

You notice that a crew chief uses nicknames for all new stagehands instead of their names. Some of the nicknames have racial, ageist, or sexual content. You’ve had enough and decide to confront the crew chief about the new guy, A.

Clumsy: “Hey – A has a name. It isn’t hard.”

This is clumsy because it implies a boundary and a remedy, but does not clearly state any of the other criteria. 

Good: “I’m wondering why you called A by a nickname. Didn’t you catch A’s name? When you don’t try to learn someone’s name, it feels disrespectful and makes them feel like they don’t belong. We need to make sure everyone feels welcome. You need to work harder to learn and use people’s preferred names.”

Some distance off, you witness a female coworker focused on painting. You watch a male coworker approach her from behind and touch her in some way that causes her to have a dramatic reaction. You turn to a coworker and ask, “what was that?” They reply, “they’re buddies; it’s tickling.” But you still feel unsure…

Clumsy: Confront the guy and demand he leave the woman alone.

This is clumsy because you do not have a clear understanding of what actually happened, and your interference may make the situation worse.

Good: Find a private moment to talk to the woman. Acknowledge what you saw and that it caused you concern. Ask, “are you okay? How would you like for me to respond in the future?” Then do what she asks.

Now that you’re thinking about how you might react, here are a few scenarios to practice on your own. Remember to follow the bullet points, be specific, and see what’s happening.

You are checking in on the remaining work notes with coworkers B and C. After Coworker B leaves the discussion, coworker C comments that they’d like to “hit that.”

Clumsy: “Yikes, dude. Don’t say that.” 

This is clumsy because it does not use facts to discuss what happened, It does not clearly express your opinion, or sets no boundaries. It merely implies your opinion and then sets a boundary.


You and your coworkers have teased D about being gay, and this started in good fun on all sides. Over the last few months, the teasing has progressed and D is visibly anxious and distraught. You realize this has to stop. How do you approach your coworkers’ behavior?

Clumsy: “That’s not funny, guys”

This is clumsy because all it does it state your feelings and opinions about what’s happening. 


Coworker E keeps flirting with Coworker F. F keeps trying to avoid E, but E is becoming more insistent. F is distracted and worried about E’s attention. Neither of them is really doing their job well and the tension is affecting everyone around them.

Clumsy: “Hey – you gotta let B alone. This isn’t a bar, you know…”

This is clumsy because it contains no facts about what happened, does not state your feelings or opinions about the situation. It barely sets a boundary – “this isn’t a bar.”


G, a worker in your group, disrupts the team with aggressiveness and abusive behavior, affecting the morale and performance of others. Others are avoiding G instead of working together. You decide to step in. Who do you talk with – G or the team? What do you say?


A tour manager posts a meme about the holidays in the breakroom, which strongly suggests that only their religious traditions should be respected. You know people of several faiths work here and use the break room. Think about what you might say to your coworkers or that supervisor.


A company member organizes a closing night party for everyone saying there will be “lots of booze.” The performance has a contingent of children and they’ve also been invited to the party. Several company members have confided that they are uncomfortable attending. What can you say to the party host? When should you say it and how?


Now that you’ve had a chance to think of these scenarios, we’d like to hear your stories. Leave a comment below or on our Facebook page of instances where you’ve seen or experienced inappropriate or potentially inappropriate behavior. How you would confront the person now, if you could do it over? Or ask the community for help wording it.

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