“It’s right at the fore of everyone’s attention and firms can’t ignore it anymore”: #MeToo in accountancy

"It's right at the fore of everyone's attention and firms can't ignore it anymore": #MeToo in accountancy

How accountancy has changed since #MeToo erupted and why there's still a way to go in tackling misconduct in the workplace

Now 18 months on from the Harvey Weinstein case sparking the start of the #MeToo movement, Accountancy Age spoke to two employment lawyers about how Me Too has changed the accounting industry and how firms are making necessary changes to prevent inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

Beth Hale and Zulon Begum are from CM Murray, leading specialist employment and partnership law advisers to global companies, professional partnerships, senior executives, and partners in the City. Begum specifically advises professional services firms on M&A and non-contentious partnership matters while Hale specialises in employment and partnership law as well as acting as General Counsel for the firm. They have both seen an explosion in terms of businesses focusing on Me Too and issues stemming from it.

Hale said: “We’ve initially seen a certain amount of crisis management. We’ve been dealing with allegations as they come up, working out how to manage them, how to minimise risk for organisations, how to deal with people who have been accused of sexual harassment, and how to manage the situation. I don’t think there’s one single sector that’s been unaffected.

“There have been stories and allegations made in all sectors and professional services is no different. There are perhaps particular issues to deal with around partnership, namely the fact that often partners aren’t subject to the same kind of disciplinary procedures as employees. You’re dealing with a slightly different relationship between the organisation and the accused perpetrator.”

A shift in attitude

Hale said she’s not at all surprised by the extent of the issue, which has made itself clearer and clearer since Me Too erupted. She does feel “pleasantly surprised by how many people are speaking up now, and that people are feeling more able to speak up.”

Begum added: “I think it’s always been there, it’s just more talked about now. That’s what the Me Too movement has enabled, people to talk about it. Because it’s right to the fore of everyone’s attention, firms can’t ignore it anymore.  

“Whereas before if a complaint was made it would be quietly dealt with and maybe the victim paid off and they’d leave. Whereas firms are understanding that they can’t do that anymore, they need to take it seriously, they need to investigate, they need to hold people to account.

For Hale “It’s about sort of how they present that to their workforce, how they present that to the outside world, and how they present it to the regulator. And actually saying, ‘We acknowledge that we’ve had this issue, here’s how we’ve dealt with it’, and being really upfront with that, which I think firms haven’t done in the past. 

Both partners said, alongside this, there has been an increase in bystander reporting and employees calling others out for their behaviour.

Begum also pointed out the “particular issue for professional firms around harassment of their employees by clients or suppliers, because obviously, any professional services firms like accounting firms, have to do a lot of networking with clients to build business. There are often parties with a lot of alcohol, and you can have a client who harasses someone in the firm. And firms are taking that more seriously as well. That’s traditionally a side of it that I guess got ignored because there’s the whole fact that it’s a client.

Hale gave the example that, historically, “if you’ve got a partner who’s bringing in lots of work and has a big impact on the business but has also been harassing or bullying other staff, this has often has been brushed under the carpet and not dealt with properly. This is clear from the Big Four, for example, saying who they have exited.”

The Big Four and Me Too

Last year the Big Four accounting firms, EY, KPMG, Deloitte, and PwC all came out to publish the number of partners they had let go for inappropriate behaviour. While this behaviour may or may not have been sexual harassment, it caused a lot of discussion around this shift in attitude and Me Too was referred to as a trigger.

When asked why the Big Four made this move, Hale said “it’s about being seen to be responding appropriately. It’s about being able to say, ‘Actually, we are dealing with this properly, and we’ll show you how properly we’re dealing with it, we can tell you that we’ve kicked out this many partners’ 

Begum pointed out that, even if it’s a cynical view, the Big Four can afford to do this because they’ve got such a big partnership where smaller firms may not be able to.

“If they’ve dismissed five, 10, or 20 people in the last five years, it’s very difficult for you as a journalist to figure out who those 20 individuals are. If you’re a small partnership with a very low turnover of partners, it’s very easy to go and identify those partners just from Companies House records. So I’m not surprised smaller firms haven’t followed suit.  

Training and teaching firms

Begum mostly acts for firms and in firms you normally have a two-track process. You have the process involving the employee, whether they are the accused or accuser, and the terms to follow are usually set out in the employee handbook. Then there is the partner. Often firms don’t have separate policies for partners so you’ll be dealing with them under the partnership agreement, which often won’t say anything about what happens when there is an investigation against a partner or if the partner is the accuser.

She said her role is “both on the reactive side, dealing with an active complaint, and helping firms look at the situation on a long-term basis. This includes assessing whether their partnership agreement or policies and procedures are up to scratch and whether their people have the right training. We’ve been doing a lot of training for professional firms on how to manage complaints when they come in and how to prevent them happening in the first place.”

Hale added: “We’re doing a lot around culture shift and how to make people aware of what inappropriate sexual behaviour in the workplace might entail. So we’ve been helping clients with training staff and training partners about what sexual harassment is, and how it can – to some extent – be prevented in the workplace, including looking at what is and isn’t acceptable.”

Taking action

Hale said: “I think a lot of employers – particularly big firms, particularly in legal and financial sector – actually already had policies and procedures in place, certainly for their employees.

“It’s more the implementation of those policies that I think is problematic. They have them in place and they think that they’ve ticked a box by going, ‘Right, we’ve got a harassment policy, it’s fine, everyone reads the handbook and then they know not to harass people’.

“I think there’s been very little progress historically on what the triggers for harassment are in the workplace and what firms can be doing to address those triggers – looking at things like working hours and alcohol, which are two of the things that we see contributing a lot to the kind of scenarios we’ve been hearing about.  

“Employers are starting to look at how they can address those sort of cultural aspects. This means not just putting a policy in place, but making sure people know what the policy says and that they’ve got a really tight procedure that kicks into place when they get an allegation. This means looking at how they embed it into an organisation and make it really meaningful rather than having an off-the-cuff policy about it.

“A sexual harassment policy or an anti-harassment policy for one organisation won’t be the same as it will be for another, because there are different trigger points, different concerns, and issues in different workplaces.

The future of Me Too

Now that Me Too is well-established in both our workplaces and our lives, what is the next stage of tackling sexual harassment?

Hale said: “I think it is partly about integrating it into cultures rather than this crisis management stage we’ve been through. It’s the culture shift of it becoming the norm. In the post-Me Too era, rather than having a very reactive state of mind, it’s saying actively ‘this is how people behave in the workplace and this is how people do not behave in the workplace’.

“I think bystander reporting will also increase and there is potential for a change in the law around third-party harassment in the workplace.”

“This movement is having a broader impact than just sexual harassment. It has brought to light issues around other forms of harassment, like racial harassment and sexual orientation harassment, which are other big issues in workplaces. It’s about not only taking sexual harassment seriously, it’s about taking overall harassment of employees seriously.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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