Racism in the workplace is a topic oft tackled by HR departments in mid and large sized companies. Countless articles have been written encouraging companies to develop strict policies for dealing with racist employees and their rehabilitation. But what can you do if you are an independent contractor or an employee working for a small firm and you realize that your client is a racist and their opinions are making you uncomfortable?
Most of the time I never know the political or social views of my clients. Sometimes it does come up and we don’t always agree. This actually happened to me a lot as a teacher. Parents would say things to me that they assumed I agreed with because I am white and hold a college degree. One parent actually said, “I’m worried that my son isn’t doing well in school because he listens to rap, that n***** music”. That was the most awkward parent teacher conference ever and is probably (although maybe not) an extreme example.
What would it look like for an independent contractor? Let’s say someone offering a service in the clients home such as home organizing or a painting project or cleaning service?
Imagine that you walk into a clients home. Sit down at their kitchen table and begin discussing the service that you provide, and how you can meet their needs. You bring out the contract and they sign and put down a deposit. You make small talk at some point during the interview and it becomes clear that you client has at least a few outdated points of view. Maybe they make a comment about homosexuals or people of color. Maybe it’s something very small but revealing such as lowering the volume and tone of their voice when they refer to their black neighbor, whose skin color has nothing to do with the story they tell you.
Most of us who own our own businesses or work for small companies aren’t in a position to turn clients away based on their personal views. Nor should we unless those views are interfering with our ability to do a good job by making us deeply uncomfortable.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t professional ways to deal with a client that “difficult to relate to”. Here are 5 suggestions for how to handle such a person.
1. Choose your battles: A new friend or coworker who you see often will need to be handled differently than someone you will only have to deal with for one short project. Likewise, a racial slur requires a different response than the fear of saying the word “black”. If you feel comfortable attempting to enlighten your acquaintance, then go for it. Just tread as lightly as possible. Some phrases that have worked for me are “When you tell jokes like that it makes me feel sad because one of my dear friends is a person of color. Can you please not tell jokes like that to me?” Even a simple, “not cool”, can get the point across without making the other person feel attacked.
2. Discourage elaboration without being confrontational: Just say “I haven’t had that experience” and move on to the next topic. Think of a list of questions or topics that are safe to defer to. Sports, vacation plans and getting to know you type questions are my favorites.
3. Keep interactions strictly business: less casual interaction equals fewer opportunities for commentary. This can be tricky if you have to spend a lot of time around a client to complete a contract or project and small talk is expected. If possible, wear headphones (like if you’re doing home repairs or yard work). If not possible, try the safe topic list.
4. Aim for different clientele: For the future, analyze your marketing materials, your website, and shape your branding in a way that really represents your values. Supporting organizations that advocate for and empower people of color and LGBTQ individuals will give you the opportunity to include logos and lists of organizations that you’re involved with on your website. Small changes can really help you reach your target market.
5. Don’t be afraid to sever a relationship if it will reflect poorly on you: If you would be embarrassed for others to know that you worked with a particular client then finish your contracted time and you don’t have to work with them again. If they contact you for further services and you can’t cope with the strategies above politely decline and say “I don’t think I am the best person for the job. Good luck in your search” or “I can’t commit to this project right now, I’ll let you know if something changes”.