*EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog is a guest submission from a trusted and experienced member of our freelance community. The content is written directly from her point of view.
Before I went freelance a little over a year ago, I don’t think I truly realized how helpful it was to have a full HR team at all of my full-time gigs. Beyond ensuring that you thrive at your company, an HR team has your back through the good situations and the sticky ones. So when I went freelance, I learned the hard truth very fast about steps I would need to take to make sure my safety, health, and well-being were taken care of while continuing to put my best work out there.
At first, being my own HR rep wasn’t something I’d consciously thought of. I figured out the financial and medical must-haves pretty easily. Painful, yet necessary steps all freelancers need to take, right? And, at least with these benefits, you have some professionals on the phone to help you through the myriad questions on things like Roth IRAs and medical plans.
Unfortunately, the part I wasn’t prepared for was knowing how and when to advocate for yourself or your team members when conversations get weird or uncomfortable. I’m talking about those times when a team member casually says something on the spectrum between mildly inappropriate and straight-up harassment. This is something that HR team members have experience with. HR reps also have the benefit of being a neutral party during these tough situations. Freelance creatives, on the other hand, probably don’t have experience in this field. We freelancers also don’t have the luxury of confronting important clients at the risk of losing our very livelihood. It’s scary. But sticking up for yourself is ultimately more important and it helps you set a boundary with clients. Here’s my story, how I handled it, and some advice for any other freelancer out there who is experiencing something similar.
I was working for a start-up marketing agency that consisted of myself, two other freelance creatives, a project manager, and a CMO, the oldest, who was the sole owner of the agency and leader of the project. Several of us had worked on projects together and knew a lot about each others’ personal lives—both the good and the bad stuff. There was no HR team or consultant hired for the agency, and, therefore, no code of conduct for anyone to sign or agree to. I’d worked with this agency and this CMO once before, so I felt fine working on a new project with the same, familiar team. You know, people I trusted.
We’d heard that the CMO really wanted to bring in an outside consultant “marketing guru”; an old friend with decades of experience to help inspire us and lend ideas. This suggestion seemed to come out of left field. We were told we’d just have a meeting to “feel out the chemistry” to see if we wanted to work with this consultant...who also happened to be an old BFF of the CMO. My red flags started going up that this was strange, but, hey, I’m a pragmatist. I try not to react to new things off the bat.
On our calendars, the Zoom meeting was outlined as (1) a discussion around our target customer and (2) 15-minute share-outs of our individual creative concepts we’d prepared ahead of the meeting. We were supposed to bring ideas, talk through them, and collaborate. But there was also this stranger in the room, the CMO’s old BFF. We’ll just call this person The Consultant from here on out. After we discussed deep findings of our target audience, our CMO introduced us to The Consultant.
The Consultant took the stage—and would hold the stage for two hours, in full control of the meeting. Throughout his presentation, The Consultant’s tone was condescending, as though all us young people in the virtual room knew nothing about what we were doing. We were impressed, sure! But then, when one of my fellow creators offered praise to The Consultant, there were suddenly biting remarks aimed at that team member. The Consultant started mocking the team member and even edged on talking about personal details about this creative. It was clear to, at least me, that The CMO must have casually disclosed personal things about us to his buddy prior to this call. Trust was broken. The space was not safe. To make matters worse, the CMO kept laughing at these awful remarks, which just kept coming. There was a mixture of shocked faces and uncomfortable wincing from the rest of us on the call. I could tell we all wanted to leave ASAP. Once time was up, we all exited the Zoom meeting with the CMO saying we’d take the weekend to process the presentation. Afterward, several of us individually reached out to the creative that had been berated to see if they were okay.
That meeting occurred on a Friday. By Monday, I was determined to make myself heard, sticking up for myself and my coworker. In our recap meeting that Monday I let everyone know I did not want to work with The Consultant. Not only did I feel unsafe around that person, but I thought he was out of line and blatantly disrespectful to my co-worker. What was to prevent this unhinged person from repeating this kind of behavior in the future? There was no code of conduct in place, after all.
The CMO invited me to chat later in the week about the situation. In that one-on-one meeting, I doubled-down on how I didn’t feel safe and expressed how confident I was in our team to move forward without The Consultant. I also brought up the fact that we were a team of privileged adults who knew each other pretty intimately. What if we were all strangers, some of us from marginalized backgrounds? Would anyone else on the team have felt empowered to refuse to work with a veteran in the field at the risk of losing a job? I reminded him he didn’t have any HR in place, that this was me advocating for myself, my safety, and the safety of others in lieu of not having anyone else to fight for us. I reminded him that we were his team, who signed up to work for him, and that he needed to protect and advocate for us.
In the end, the CMO decided not to work with the Consultant, attributing his decision to my strong feelings around safety for the team.
There are so many ways this situation could be different for different people in different walks of life. But here are the things I learned from this experience. I hope they help you if you ever find yourself faced with a tough situation like this:
- Speak up for yourself if you feel it’s safe.
I was afraid to speak up for myself at first, but my refusal to work with an abusive person was greater than my fear of losing this job. You’ll have to weigh your own pros and cons. If you don’t feel safe enough to stand up for yourself, perhaps call on a coworker to accompany you and bear witness to your conversations. If you feel that the culture is so insidiously awful, strategically make moves to leave the company. There’s also no shame in taking time until you’re ready to speak out. For me, it took a weekend. For some, more time is needed. Just be aware that this bad behavior has the potential to continue until someone speaks out.
- Check-in on your coworkers.
Maybe you’re the one in a position of privilege or you were a witness to the wrongdoing against a coworker. Reach out to the victim to see if they’re okay first and listen. Ask them how you can best help. Maybe help looks like speaking directly to those in power about changing their actions. Maybe it looks like lifting your coworker up publicly and consistently in meetings. Maybe it looks like resigning when they resign if matters come down to that. Bad workplace culture is just sometimes not fixable or worth the fight.
- Hold those in power accountable.
In your conversation with leaders, bring their attention to their leadership responsibilities which include ensuring that all their employees feel safe from abuse, harm, and microaggressions. They are the ones with the power to make change and it’s on them to make sure this doesn’t happen again. If they’re still not hearing you, remind them that the bad culture they’ve created will only cause them to lose clients, lose employees, and potentially get sued. Sadly, there’s nothing that makes those in power more fearful than when it comes to losing money.
- Suggest ways that the company can better invest in their teams.
There are plenty of freelance HR consultants that the company can hire—this would be my first suggestion. At the very least, they should hire this person to create a code of conduct that everyone in the company accepts and signs. If the company is not willing to take this step (which is also telling), suggest other methods like encouraging vacations, more frequent meetings where you celebrate your weeks together, and promoting cultural get-togethers just because. You know, like your favorite HR people do on the daily. Remember, though, it’s on those in power to make things change. If they’re not fixing problems and striving for a better workplace, maybe take it as a lesson and move on to greener pastures.