Some Small Dance Companies Don't Have HR. So What Do You Do If Something Happens?

December 26, 2019

When Evan Supple joined a small but internationally renowned ballet company in 2016, he was told that it was like a family. Dancers shared ownership of the work and rehearsal process and were close with the artistic director. But when Supple reported abuse he says he witnessed at a children’s rehearsal and was subsequently fired, he was forced to reckon with a much more hostile reality.

“The open, nurturing environment that I saw as the company’s greatest strength when I took the job actually contributed to my downfall,” he says. Because he felt empowered to speak up, he was all the more mystified when it seemed there was no recourse for how he was treated after taking action.

As stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the dance world circulate, they bring up questions about what protocols are in place to protect dancers at companies that are too small to have a human resources department. Even beyond issues of abuse, how should dancers voice concerns about more routine dysfunction, like late paychecks or unsafe working conditions?

When to Speak Up

“If it’s about safety, like a riser with no railing that is consistently overlooked, don’t wait—you or someone else might get hurt,” says Patch Schwadron, senior career counselor at Career Transition For Dancers, a division of The Actors Fund. But for other issues, it helps to take the time to prepare, says Sue Porter, executive director of BalletMet who also happens to have 30 years of experience as an attorney specializing in labor and employment law. Print out any emails or written agreements that back up your claim. Be ready to answer questions about when and where something happened and who was there to witness it.

Who to Approach

“Even if a company doesn’t have designated HR staff, they should have basic policies on who to talk to about specific issues,” says Porter. When it comes to compensation disputes, that might be a company manager or an accounting department. For reports of discrimination, harassment or abuse, it might be whoever is considered your direct supervisor or a rehearsal director. “At BalletMet, dancers can come to the artistic director, executive director or personnel committee of our board,” says Porter. According to Griff Braun, director of organizing and outreach for the American Guild of Musical Artists, if it’s a union job, you can go straight to your delegate, who will direct you to the appropriate representative to explain all your options, support you in any meetings and even reach out to company leadership on your behalf. If the person you’re supposed to report to is the one perpetrating the abuse, or if there’s no policy to follow, disclose the details to any member of the leadership team whom you trust.

The best-case scenario is when an issue can be resolved with just a conversation, says Braun. As you approach initial meetings with company leadership, “it never seems productive to assume there were bad intentions at play,” says Porter. If there isn’t already a policy in place to facilitate these types of conversations, she recommends sending a respectful email asking to set up a meeting and following up verbally if you get no response. “Then be as professional as you can. After all, you want this person to listen to you,” she says.

Going Up the Chain

If you feel like you’ve gone as far as you can within the company by following policy, you might consider contacting someone on the board of directors, says Schwadron. “They should have a healthy distance from the day-to-day running of the company, but would likely want to know if something inappropriate is going on at the entity they are raising money for.”

A formal grievance can be filed with company leadership as a next step, says Braun. “And if that doesn’t compel movement, you could choose to seek arbitration, where a neutral third party acts like a judge and makes a binding ruling on what should happen next.” You can pursue this on your own or seek additional guidance from local, state or federal agencies that help with labor disputes.

In a situation like Supple’s, Schwadron would recommend going to the appropriate public service provider in your state to get guidance on reporting the abuse itself and then to a labor lawyer about the retaliation. “The company could still say, ‘Nothing happened in that room and we let his contract run out for other reasons,’ but I certainly wouldn’t give up,” she says. (Supple spoke to board members, the company’s third-party investigator and his state’s Department of Human Services Division of Child Welfare, but as of publication there has been no clear resolution.)

The Potential Consequences

Most policies specifically state that you won’t be retaliated against if you report an issue, says Porter. “And employers should understand that it would be far worse to have a retaliation claim against them than the original harassment claim. In general, company leaders invest a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to recruit dancers, so we want to work it out.” Dancers should never have to choose between acting on something like abuse and keeping their job, but it’s natural to be afraid that you could be punished for saying something. Some situations leave dancers with few positive options, says Braun. “Fixing a systemic problem in the workplace may mean sticking your neck out to report on an employer you’d otherwise want to work with again—it’s a tough spot to be in.”

Even after his eventual dismissal, Supple says he’d do it all again. “Nothing will change if people refuse to speak up for what’s right,” he says. “Do I wish I still had my job? Of course. But I would regret for the rest of my life not standing up for those kids.”

Building Better Policies

Small companies without clear policies should create them and communicate the details early and often, says Griff Braun of AGMA, which encourages its 65 signatory dance, opera and chorale companies to have anti-harassment and discrimination policies in place. “It’s not just the right thing to do—it’s a means of protecting your company,” he says. Patch Schwadron, a career counselor for dancers, agrees: “Companies can get training on everything from how to write a good policy to how to manage a sexual harassment claim. With highly proactive younger dancers entering the workforce, companies are leaving themselves at risk by not creating these policies,” she says. Small companies can sometimes find the legal and consulting expertise they need through their boards, says Sue Porter, executive director of BalletMet. “Especially if it isn’t in the budget to hire a full-time employee to handle HR, make it a priority to invest in a consultant who can get these policies off the ground,” says Porter.