Is It Harassment? Try Our Twist Test™.

workplace harassment - wrong or right?Let’s say that you just observed a behaviour in the workplace that somehow made you uncomfortable, where your gut tells you that maybe some offensive line was crossed. Or – heaven help us! –  let’s say that it was you who said or did something that makes you wonder whether you’ve just crossed that elusive line between ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’.

But you’re not really sure. The more you mull it over, the less sure you are.

You’re not alone. These ‘grey’ harassment situations are very difficult to diagnose. And if we don’t diagnose properly, we also cannot take intelligent action.

There’s a little thinking-tool I’ve devised, to be used a litmus test. I call it The Twist Test™, and here’s how it works: When you’re unsure whether ‘the line was crossed’, take one fact related to the situation, change it (=twist) and see whether the answer becomes clear.

Here’s an example – based on a real-life situation:

A well-liked colleague has a strong French accent. It’s actually cute and endearing and everyone comments on it on a regular basis, mostly fondly. One day as you’re listening to that colleague’s presentation to a large group, another colleague whispers to you: “hey, what do you think – is she speaking English or French right now?”.

You feel uncomfortable and confused by this comment, but not sure how to react. 

This is a great opportunity to use ‘The Twist”! Ask yourself, “If this person had another type of accent (Chinese, Arab, Indian….), would it be okay to make these comments?”. If your answer is ‘no, it would not be okay to make this comment’, then diagnostically the line between ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ had been crossed. The comments about the French accent should cease.

Typical situations to use The Twist Test™ might be:

  • When people are making fun of a male trait – twist it by asking: Would we allow the same comments about females?
  • When it’s a joke or comment about low weight, would it be okay to make a similar comment about being overweight?
  • When it’s a joke/comment about a generally-respected group (say, Catholics), would it be okay if the same comment were directed toward a more vulnerable religion (Muslims, say, or Jews)?

Discussion Questions

In your team, consider the following questions:

  1. In our organization…. in the domain of respectful behaviour, what are three ‘lines’ that everyone knows are not to be crossed?
  2. In our organization…. in the domain of respectful behaviour, what are three ‘lines’ that are not as clear (and may cause some confusion, upset, unrest or conflict)?
  3. What are the effects of having unclear lines on our team? On individuals? On customer service (internal or external)? On the work itself?
  4. Regarding the unclear lines we discussed in response to question no. 2: in our team, what would we like to make clearer (and abide by) regarding those lines?
  5. If we were to better define the lines as per question no. 3, what difference would it make to our group’s performance? To the way we each feel about the team? Other differences?


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