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Dear ReWorker,

My organization has brought on a contractor to work onsite and support the business. It has come to my attention that a company employee is verbally abusing the contractor by yelling and calling her names. Can the contractor report this employee to our company's HR employee harassment “hotline"? What is HR's responsibilities to protect a contractor from harassment?

Sincerely,

Witness to Workplace Harassment

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Dear Witness,

Contractors are not employees, and in many cases, you should not treat them as employees. For instance, you shouldn't invite contractors to attend staff meetings, offer them health insurance or control their schedules. But when it comes to harassment in the workplace, there's no question about it: Everyone deserves to be treated equally and respectfully, whether they are a full-time employee or not.

Look at the big picture: If this employee is abusing a contractor, there's the possibility that they're also abusing other members of your staff. You'll want to nip this behavior in the bud before it escalates.

Start Thinking About Ethics

Right now, you're busy splitting hairs over whether a contractor should be able to report a terrible employee. But instead, you should be grateful you're aware of the problem so that you can solve it.

You can easily sit in your office and say: "It's okay that one of my employees is harassing an independent contractor. There's no law against that!" And you're right: Independent contractors are not protected under Title VII, the federal law that makes racial discrimination and sexual harassment illegal in the workplace. However, in some places like New York state, there are laws that protect independent contractors from harassment or discrimination. Make sure you double check your state and local statutes to familiarize yourself with these laws.

Still, though the behavior you described may not be illegal, that doesn't make it right. Harassment should never be tolerated, legal or not. It's also bad for business. After all, instances of harassment can lead to fear in other employees, creating a toxic work environment and decreasing overall productivity rates. You have an obligation to protect the business and to make your company a great place to work, and that means taking matters into your own hands.

Start by confronting the alleged harasser and seeking the truth. There are two sides to every story, so investigate. Depending on what you find out, at the very least you should issue a warning and confirm that harassment will not be tolerated at your organization. Provide the accused employee with a copy of your employee handbook, where anti-harassment policies should clearly be outlined, and spend time going over it if necessary. If the situation continues or escalates, you should seriously consider termination.

A harasser doesn't get a free pass just because the person they are harassing isn't a full-time employee. You have an obligation to provide a harassment free workplace so that not only employees, but contractors, vendors, clients and anyone who deals with your business feels safe at work.

Sincerely,

Your ReWorker

Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady

Photo: Creative Commons