Sexual harassment – is accountancy next for #MeToo?

Sexual harassment – is accountancy next for #MeToo?

Sexual harassment is big news at the moment as numerous big Hollywood names have opened the floodgates and encouraged individuals to come forward. So, is accountancy next for #MeToo?

Sexual harassment is big news at the moment. Not, of course, because it is a new phenomenon, but because it seems that the allegations swirling around numerous big Hollywood names have opened the floodgates and made it OK to say #MeToo.

As a law firm which specialises in employment law and related investigations, we have definitely seen a surge in both complaints being raised and, even in the absence of complaints, employers taking proactive steps to demonstrate their commitment to achieving a workplace free from harassment.

Towards the close of 2017, as the #MeToo movement was gaining momentum, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) began soliciting evidence about sexual harassment in the workplace and how employers deal with it. Between December 2017 and February 2018 they asked individuals to tell them their experiences of sexual harassment, whether they reported it to their employer and what the employer did about it. At the same time, they asked employers about their policies and procedures for dealing with sexual harassment. The results are set out in their report, Turning the Tables: ending sexual harassment at work.

The responses were eye-opening to say the least: workers reported damage to their careers and to their mental and physical health caused by “corrosive cultures which silence individuals and normalise harassment”. Nearly all the people who reported being harassed were women. This, perhaps, reflects the typical power hierarchy in the workplace – the most common perpetrator was a senior colleague.

Around half the individuals said they did not report the harassment to their employer. Reasons for this included a belief that it wouldn’t be taken seriously, belief that the perpetrator would be protected by senior management, a fear of victimisation or lack of suitable reporting procedures. Men described particularly high barriers to reporting, including macho workplace cultures and the perceived “stigma” of being a male harassment victim.

It seems that those failing to report might have a point, however, as in around half the cases that were reported, the employers failed to take any action. Respondents described employers downplaying complaints or telling them it was a misunderstanding. Many were treated as “trouble-makers” or the complaint was laughed-off as trivial or a joke. In addition to normalising sexual harassment, some employers indulged in victim-blaming, claiming the complainants’ clothes or actions invited attention.

On occasion, individuals were “punished” for complaining by being threatened, disciplined or transferred to another role whilst the perpetrator remained unaffected. Revealingly, the most common response to the question whether the employer’s reaction to the complaint had been helpful or unhelpful was, “very unhelpful”.

Employers’ procedures provide a potential explanation for why complainants were dissatisfied – the EHRC found many to be ineffective. Harassment was often included within a wider diversity policy, some of which made only minimal references to sexual harassment. Around two-thirds of employers responding to the survey trained managers on harassment, but only half trained other staff – and fewer than one-third evaluated the effectiveness of their policies.

The EHRC has made various recommendations for change. These fall under three headings, “changing culture”, “promoting transparency” and “strengthening protection”, more details of these recommendations are set out in their report.

Some accountancy firms will already be grappling with complaints which have risen to the surface as a result of the #MeToo movement. But there will be others who have not yet had to deal with the issue. Even if no complaints have yet been made, can accountancy firms really afford to rest on their laurels? Given that a survey of UK adults in December 2017, carried out on behalf of the BBC, found that 40% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, any firm which simply assumes that there is no problem in their workplace is highly likely to be mistaken. So what proactive steps can and should firms take?

A best practice approach to dealing with these issues requires careful consideration of how to create and maintain a workplace that is free from all forms of harassment. Firms which are taking a lead on these concerns are focussing on three key areas – how to prevent harassment, how to encourage and support employees in reporting any incidents, and how best to investigate sensitive allegations against both current and former members of staff.

The key to prevention and culture change on this issue is that it has to come from the top. If the management team is not fully on board, huge damage can be done, trust can be irreparably damaged and change can never truly be brought about. Many of the firms that we work with are starting off by training their leadership teams on what harassment is and how to deal with it. They are then rolling out training to their entire employee population to ensure that everyone knows what is and is not acceptable, and what to do when the line is crossed.

Finally, if a complaint does come to light, are you ready for it? Some of these complaints may be made against the most senior (and valuable) partners in your firm; the idea that these people are, somehow, untouchable is now a fallacy. Firms may need to turn to external investigators and be prepared to take some bold decisions in order to ensure that these difficult, and sometime long-standing, issues are addressed.

Is accountancy next for #MeToo? It is not a question of if, but when.

Karen Baxter is partner and head of professional services at Lewis Silkin LLP.

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