Last week, the Treasury committee announced a renewed Inquiry into “Sexism in the City”, five years on from their report which looked at the issues impacting women who work in finance. The committee will consider the role of the Government and the financial regulators, as well as firms, and will consider a range of issues from progress on removing the gender pay gap to combatting harassment and misogyny in financial services (the call for evidence can be found here).
This new Inquiry comes after highly public scandals this year which have raised more questions and concerns about sexual misconduct in business (see here).
Of course, the critical problem of sexual harassment (and other equally detrimental behaviours such as bullying and discrimination) is not confined to just the City and impacts all sectors and industries. The consequences of poor or inappropriate behaviour and harassment in the workplace for individual employees, the wider workforce and the reputation of the business are well known and have been documented in countless reports, surveys and research. It is essential to take measures to create a safe and inclusive workplace for all employees.
Culture and values
If the recent movements of MeToo, #BLM and Everyone’s Invited, have taught us anything, it’s that across sectors, a good culture is critical. The written policies and procedures that cover equality, diversity and inclusion must be in place and must be applied consistently to everyone in the business However, culture is more than that. It is ‘the way we do things round here’, it is every single interaction every day in a business and it’s the attitudes, beliefs and feelings of the staff, management and the board.
Speaking in the aftermath of the MeToo movement, the then Director of the Institute of Business Ethics said:
"a good culture liberates and empowers an organisation while keeping it safe. The benefits are there for the long term, while clearing up the mess will take a lot of time and trouble if it goes wrong.”
The values of a business (as set out in policies and articulated through training) need to be clear and “lived” at each level of the business (including through the conduct of the board and senior management). This is the context within which people judge the appropriateness of their own behaviour and that of others. Embedding a good culture takes positive and courageous leadership where professional standards are always maintained, where “cultural slippage” is challenged and where appropriate action is taken when boundaries have been transgressed.
Five steps to creating safer workplaces
1. Be proactive
Regularly review HR policies (before something goes wrong). Policies on recruitment, training, equality, anti-bullying, whistleblowing and disciplinary should be robust and should, where relevant, contain clear definitions of what constitutes harassment, sexual harassment and bullying and what will happen when a report is made. Check that all policies are up to date, legally compliant, meet best practice standards and are communicated to everyone at induction and via training.
2. Know your vulnerabilities and reduce opportunities
Every business will have different weak areas. Harassment and bullying can particularly occur in very hierarchical organisations (where there is more scope to abuse a position of power), industries with a lot of client entertainment and it can disproportionately affect particular groups such as part-time workers, lone workers, younger employees and those with existing protected characteristics (for example LGBT employees). It can be helpful to risk assess whether there are individuals or particular groups (or particular work functions) who are more at risk of harassment or bullying. What steps is the business taking to reduce the risks?
3. Encourage a "speak up" culture
Staff surveys and HR audits can be useful tools to identify issues (even those raised on an anonymous basis). HR should always avoid taking sides and try to remain open-minded about feedback. It is sometimes easy to label those who raise issues as ‘troublemakers’ (they may be that, but they may also have a point). It is important not to just accept the common narrative but also to listen to the dissenting voices. Many businesses carry out “employee listening exercises” where feedback is taken.
Staff should know how to raise concerns and report issues. They should be assured that they will not suffer a detriment as a consequence of reporting a problem. Offering a choice of reporting channels to staff, for example in person, online, designated telephone number or a mobile phone app can be helpful. Where staff do not have confidence in the process, this can act as a major deterrent to the workforce reporting issues potentially resulting in the problems mounting and management / HR being unaware.
4. Take prompt and appropriate action when concerns or complaints are raised
A good culture requires management who are prepared to act appropriately in responding to staff who raise concerns. All complaints should be investigated and the parameters of the investigation clearly set out. Is this an isolated complaint or part of a bigger problem? Is this particular complaint also perhaps an opportunity to review workplace culture?
Adopting a “Zero – tolerance” approach to harassment and discrimination: Guidance from the UN in the context of sexual harassment
"Commitments to zero tolerance for sexual harassment have been heard from senior leaders particularly since the #MeToo movement gained traction. It is right and necessary that businesses and institutions have clear objectives and that these are communicated to staff, to students, to partners, customers, clients and to the world. But zero tolerance needs to be more than an aspiration or a claim; it is a practice that has everyday meaning. Zero tolerance must be woven into the culture of an business. Zero tolerance in practice requires taking all allegations seriously. It does not mean that the same actions will always be taken if a report is upheld; instead there should be a range of options in terms of sanctions with proportionality being a principle in determining consequences. Zero tolerance means that the leadership will make it possible and safe for anyone, no matter their position or contractual status, to be active in shaping a climate where harassment is never ignored, minimised or excused. Where claims to zero tolerance sit alongside an absence of action, lived experiences undermine the value of the claim. Contradictory signals risk damaging the reputation, internal and external, of the business and the belief of the staff or students concerned, that here is serious intent to change culture.
At the heart of zero tolerance practice is the certainty that the business will never do nothing in response to knowledge of harassment, will always support those who report, sanction perpetrators and will proactively ensure that equality and non-discrimination inform its work."
5. Learn lessons from past cases
It is not always possible to prevent workplace harassment or bullying and there is no 'silver bullet'. The above practical steps should assist businesses in preventing and detecting the issues. Where it does occur, in addition to investigating the matter properly, and appropriately supporting those involved, it is always important to learn from each case. What went wrong? What steps can be taken in future?
Throughout our WorkLife blog we give guidance on a range of related topics including (amongst many):
- Creating an EDI strategy,
- Tackling sexual harassment in the workplace
- Supporting mental health in the workplace
- Dealing with domestic abuse as an employment issue
- Handling investigations in the workplace
- Embracing ESG in the workplace: top tips for employers
- Workplace incivility: time for an organisational response?
© Farrer & Co LLP, July 2023