Bystander Intervention for Freelancers

How do you speak up for the rights of others when you don't have job security? Media Mentor Esther Coleman-Hawkins enlists some experts for advice.

All over the corporate world – a world of permanent jobs, HR departments, and workplace training – there have been big responses to discrimination at work.

(OK so some of them have been poor, to say the least. KPMG I’m thinking of you.)

But when I think about my own working life – short-term freelance contracts, where the next paycheque is dependent on me ‘getting on’ within the team environment – it raises questions about how we stand up to unfair treatment.

For us, there’s no HR department to call, no Employee Assistance line, often no other manager that you come into contact with, and certainly no assurances that you’ll be rewarded for raising a problem.

So, what can you do? 

For this article, I sought the advice of  Renee Imbesi, Principal Program Officer from VicHealth’s Mental Wellbeing team; Cessalee Stovall, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategist and Consultant and Director of Stage A Change; the MEAA and Screen Australia.  We’ve come up with some suggestions for bystander intervention written particularly for freelancers.

Example 1: An old (male) boss’ morning greeting is ‘Alright bitches!’. Outright sexism or an ironic comment on the inherent power differentials between genders? How do I know if something is bullying/racism and not just office banter?

‘Sometimes it’s a fine line, but generally, if you find it problematic, it’s problematic. It’s possible that the perpetrator may have no intention or awareness of the harm they could inflict, making the line even finer. If something is happening repeatedly, like a specific person is always the butt of the joke, I’d check in to see how they’re receiving the joke.’ Stage A Change

Read: Cold Email Etiquette: how to ask for work

‘Think, is this against the law, office banter or somewhere in the middle? Think about the term unfair treatment – this can make it easier to spot. Does it feel unfair? The more subtle interactions are the best opportunities to be an active bystander. For example, sexist jokes are relatively easy to call out compared to sexual harassment but they’re on the same continuum. Calling out any unfair treatment can reduce the likelihood of it getting more serious or more harmful.’ VicHealth

What can I say as a bystander in that situation that’s going to be helpful?

‘Our research shows that everyone can play a role in calling out unfair treatment. Say, “Geez I haven’t heard that one for a few decades”, making it clear what’s been said is outdated but in a gentle way. Say, “sorry what did you say?”. The repetition creates an opportunity to take an inappropriate remark back, without being confrontational.’ VicHealth

‘Adding your voice to the situation might cause others to acknowledge what has happened and could stop someone else from repeating the bad behaviour with the assumption that it’s ok.’ Stage A Change

Example 2: I’m a runner on a short-term contract for a small production company with no HR department. I’ve seen something that’s definitely inappropriate behaviour. I’m too scared to step in and stop it – who can I tell?

Is there someone in a position of authority in the production that you feel safe talking to? Or a trusted mentor in the industry? No? Try these steps.

‘First check with that person to see if they’re okay. Let them know that you saw what happened and ask them if they need anything now. Have a quick, private check-in with your colleague and don’t forget to pay attention to body language, facial expressions and demeanour.’ Stage A Change

‘If you’re a member of the union then we represent you, provide free advice and take up concerns on your behalf. We deal with these issues on a daily basis. We know it’s really hard for an individual to speak up, which is why we bring our members to together to make sure that the responsibility isn’t on an individual.’ Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance

‘Document what’s happened, take notes with the time and date, details of what happened, who was there etc. Look after yourself, speak to family, friends or support phone lines. The Australian Human Rights Commission and the state-based Equal Opportunity Commissions can offer anonymous advice about your options.’ VicHealth

More generally, what can everyone – boss or freelancer – do to make things better?

Remember, the SPA /MEAA Australian Screen Industry Code of Practice: Discrimination, Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Bullying applies to all projects approved for Screen Australia production funding. For general queries about the Code and its pro forma policies, employers should be speak to SPA and employees to the MEAA.

But you can do something as well.

Download and print this poster for your workplace. Give it to your boss for approval, add in the details of who people go to – and spread the word. 

It’s unfair to leave the responsibility for speaking out to those who are both the recipient and have the most to lose. If you see something, use your powers for good!’ 

Cessalee Stovall, Stage a Change

‘People are more likely to stand up if it’s obvious the organisation has clear expectations about behaviour. If you’re the boss, or head of department, make it clear that everyone on your production deserves to feel safe. Use posters or emails to communicate this. Detail how staff should follow up if they witness unfair treatment.’ Vic Health

‘Creating a more inclusive workplace is everyone’s responsibility. Women and minorities are often faced with greater professional consequences for standing up. It’s unfair to leave the responsibility for speaking out to those who are both the recipient and have the most to lose. If you see something, use your powers for good!’ Stage A Change

Esther Coleman-Hawkins
About the Author
Co-founder of Media Mentors, Esther Coleman-Hawkins is an experienced TV producer, conference organiser and career mentor. Media Mentors provides one-on-one mentoring and runs workshops and networking events for people in the creative industry. Sessions with her, or her co-founder Denise Eriksen, can be booked through their website