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Putting An End To Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

The momentum behind the #MeToo movement has encouraged thousands of women to report their own mistreatment in the workplace and the number of complaints continue to rise. Just as one scandal fades away, another replaces it, with recent press articles highlighting that this is still very much a systemic issue for employers and there is no indication that the number of complaints will decline.

On the rise

In 2018, the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) increased its budget by 10% as it prepared for a rise in sexual harassment allegations this year. According to reports, 43 cases of sexual misconduct have been reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in the 10 months to the end of August 2019. Prominent City law firms are increasingly being exposed in the media with senior lawyers accused of sexual harassment, as recently as last week, with the outcome of the SDT hearing in the case of Ryan Beckwith and a law firm described in the press as having an “endemic culture of sexual inappropriateness”.

Law firms are not alone; the damaging reports last month about the sexual harassment culture within the insurance market which has prompted a full culture audit, reports earlier this month that a fifth of doctors in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace and findings that sexual violence and harassment at UK Universities have trebled in the last three years. It spans all industries and all boundaries.

How do you tackle culture change of this nature and magnitude within an industry?

Last week’s SDT decision in Ryan Beckwith’s case, in which he was mandated to pay a fine, has called into question whether the decision was too lenient. Although Beckwith is required to pay a fine, he is permitted to continue to practice law and questions have been raised whether this outcome sends the right message to putting an end to sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the Financial Services industry, the FCA has been turning the spotlight on non-financial misconduct.  With the upcoming Senior Managers and Certification Regime (SM&CR) extension in December this year, the FCA remains focussed on governance and culture, and looks to bring diversity and inclusion into the core of its agenda. In September 2018, Megan Butler, Director of Investment, Wholesale and Specialist Supervision at the FCA, wrote to the Women and Equality Committee in response to their report on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. In it, she confirmed that the FCA regards sexual harassment as misconduct and it falls within their regulatory scope. Misconduct of this kind is an indicator of poor culture and the SM&CR framework aims to “improve conduct among staff at all levels”.

This puts sexual harassment and other non-financial misconduct on equal footing with market abuse and insider trading. The FCA’s continued and increasing focus is promising and a step in the right direction in holding organisations and senior individuals to account for a company’s culture.

It is perhaps a direction that other regulatory bodies should consider.

What about employers?

Sexual harassment in the workplace has a far broader meaning than acts related to career advancement or assault. It extends beyond the obvious portrayals described in the press.  The most commonly experienced harassment is gender harassment. For example, inappropriate comments, repeated requests for dates, staring, whistling, suggestive gestures, unwanted behaviour that intimidates or humiliates and office banter gone wrong. These acts can be undertaken by colleagues in the workplace, not just individuals in management positions. It is this kind of systemic behaviour that can have a detrimental effect on a company’s culture and create a hostile work environment for complainants and their colleagues. So how does an organisation tackle this? We set out below three recommendations that lay the foundation and set the tone for employers to put an end to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Policy that has substance

Employers need to make sure that there is a policy in place which stipulates the types of behaviour that will not be tolerated and the consequences for breaching that policy. Often employers may have such policies in place but they are not utilised effectively or enforced. The policy must be underpinned by clear, consistent and robust investigation of the allegations that are made, no matter the level of seniority, of the accused. Employees must see that their employer takes these matters seriously and that there are the same sanctions enforced for those in the C-suite through to those at entry-level.

Culture of Communication

Ensuring that there are several different paths available for employees to speak up is essential. It can be difficult, embarrassing and intimidating, for someone to speak up about their experiences or the type of behaviour or harassment they have endured. A single route to issue complaints, such as through a manager (who may be connected to the complaint) is not enough. Employers should consider implementing open door policies, where staff are encouraged to speak to others in different departments. Whistleblowing lines are also an option, but this may present challenges for employers in adequately investigating any complaints and protecting the anonymity of the complainant. There is a fine balance to be struck in safely managing such investigations and not placing the complainant at further risk. 

Better options would be dedicated members of a HR team who are trained to handle complaints of this nature. A complainant must feel secure, and know they are not risking their career in speaking up about their treatment or what they have witnessed their colleagues experience. Part of the problem with the Weinstein case was that it was so widely known and other employees in his company were seen as complicit, there was a perceived tolerance to it. This made it risky for any woman to speak up at the time.

Encouraging a culture where everyone, complainants and allies alike, feel able to speak out about inappropriate conduct and know their employer will take them seriously, is the basis for creating a work environment that is intolerant to this behaviour.

Anti-harassment Champion

Perhaps it is time to start putting a dedicated champion at the helm of workplace culture, just as with the appointment of whistleblowing champions. The driver to appoint whistleblowing champions as a fundamental part of the UK’s regulatory framework, was to ensure that employees know they can raise a concern internally, or externally to the regulator, without jeopardising their career. However, the lens of whistleblowing champions is still heavily focussed through financial wrongdoing. With the rise in sexual harassment complaints, is it time for a similar champion in this space?

Key takeaway?

A cultural shift is taking place and the speed at which this is happening demonstrates that the recent uncovering of systemic issues concerning sexual harassment in the workplace, is only scratching the surface.  Organisations must start now to look inwards at their people risk and culture in a holistic way. This may mean help from outside experts to help look inside with an objective view.  Action must be taken to get ahead of the tide, protect employees and keep the integrity and reputation of the organisation intact. Only then will employers be in a position to thrive with inclusion, integrity and communication embedded firmly at its core.