Discrimination, racism, sexism or any other sort of inappropriate behaviour should never be tolerated in the workplace. As an employee, there are options and resources available to end it that ensure a safe and respectful environment. According to Canadian Human Rights legislation, independent contractors are entitled to the same rights, but unfortunately, dealing with these uncomfortable situations is not as easy.
It’s rare that IT contractors will find themselves in a professional work setting that has loud, belligerent racist outbursts like we hear about through the media. It is more likely, but equally unacceptable, to be in a situation with subtle nuances and innuendos, jokes, or lack of respect and opportunity because of race, colour, ethnicity, sex, etc. Nobody, including independent contractors, should have to deal with this but quitting is no easy option for an IT contractor who signed a legally binding agreement, not to mention the fact that you can’t just walk away from the pay. Instead, there is a challenge to solve the problem, all while maintaining a positive relationship with the client and staffing agency. Failing to do so could result in a loss of your current contract (or a miserable time for the remainder of it) and a difficult time landing future gigs.
Here are a few suggestions to ensure your contract experience is respectful and free from discrimination and harassment, all while maintaining positive relationships:
Start with a Reasonable Conversation
Being professional is the key to dealing with a colleague who crosses the line. Remain calm and avoid firing back at a client’s employee with debate, insults, or any other confrontational tone. On the other extreme, experts recommend not to make light of the situation either, by adding in jokes or playing into the situation. This reinforces their behaviour and hurts your case if you need to escalate or end your contract.
It is possible the person is just ignorant and informing them that what they’re saying or doing is inappropriate may be all it takes. However, not everybody is approachable or open to that discussion. If it’s in your personality to avoid confrontation and remain quiet, it is ok to do so… temporarily. When you’ve calmed down, make a manager with the client and your recruiter aware that inappropriate comments or actions are being made. Again, a reasonable conversation will go much further and be more productive than anger and threats.
Once you’ve attempted to diffuse the situation professionally, if the behaviour persists, it is best to walk away. As already noted above, though, that is not easy for independent contractors. To make this step smoother, keep detailed documentation. This includes all specific incidences, including who was involved or around, conversations you had with the client, and conversations you had with your recruiter. It’s also encouraged to consult a lawyer if you think you need to terminate a contract over discrimination or harassment.
Be Careful of Your Own Behaviour
Just as you deserve a respectful workplace, so do other independent contractors, your clients’ employees, and your recruiters. You also have a responsibility to refrain from any discriminatory behaviour, comments or jokes, and the slightest slip-up can seriously harm your career. In addition to people just not liking you, you create risk for staffing agencies and clients as you expose them to lawsuits from their own employees. Be open to the signs that you may have crossed a line and, if the worst happens, fix it quickly.
Workplace discrimination, racism, sexism, harassment, etc. are not easy conversation topics but they are important. IT contractors especially need to be aware because as a business owner, your responsibility is heightened. You need to defend your own rights while at the same time, protect your business from any risk. Avoid getting into a discussion or telling joke that could be controversial in any way. If you are put into an uncomfortable situation, always confront it professionally and consult a lawyer when you feel it’s beyond your control.