Anti-Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

9 November 2023

In a month where predatory, sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviours have again hit the headlines, we turn our campaign focus to anti-sexual harassment within organisations and what we can do to help foster the behaviours and attitudes that support a culture of prevention.

We’ve been talking to many of our clients about the incoming change in law and the ever-increasing focus on misconduct from industry regulators – updates which have changed the narrative and further urged the resolve of organisations to prevent sexual harassment and act swiftly, fairly and decisively when instances of misconduct emerge.

For clients in financial services, non-financial misconduct has been written into the regulatory landscape since 2018, when Megan Butler’s letter to the Women & Equalities Committee was published publicly, stating that ‘Sexual Harassment is misconduct which can drive a poor culture’. In her letter, Ms Butler outlined that ‘Culture in financial services is widely accepted as a key root cause of the major conduct failings that have occurred within the industry in recent history, and we expect firms to foster healthy cultures… A culture where sexual harassment is tolerated is not one which would encourage people to speak up and be heard, or to challenge decisions. Tolerance of this sort of misconduct would be a clear example of a driver of poor culture.’

This was the first time the FCA inferred that non-financial misconduct should be as much a marker of someone’s fitness and propriety as financial misconduct itself, and – despite the positive nature of the statement – it did lead to ripples of unease throughout the sector.  Not because people disagreed with the sentiment of the regulator’s position – but more because of the ‘grey areas’ that were harder to navigate – the nuance of behaviour, and language and definitions which are open to interpretation.  These are difficult at best, but they become especially challenging when they form part of complex legal proceedings or criminal cases.

For our clients in the legal sector, the SRA in 2022 updated its position on sexual harassment and misconduct in the industry, with a Guidance document for regulated firms.  The guidance outlines the expectations of the regulator in relation to the definitions of sexual harassment, as well as the responsibility of regulated member firms in effectively managing allegations of sexual misconduct when they occur.

As is the case with financial regulation, the boundaries between conduct within a workplace setting and conduct in an individual’s personal life are less distinct, something that the SRA acknowledges themselves: ‘Sometimes however, the line between an individual’s private and professional life can begin to get blurred, making judgments about whether any conduct constitutes a regulatory matter more difficult’.

So, where can organisations begin to move the dial when it comes to tackling sexual harassment and misconduct?  How can firms move from a culture of redress to one of prevention?

Instigate a shift in culture – we believe it has to start with individuals.  Because individual behaviour sets the tone for what is acceptable and, over time, that tone will drive and set the culture.  If individuals are afraid to challenge harassment when they see it happen, or worse – are accepting of a toxic culture where sexual harassment exists – then it becomes easy for misconduct to go unchecked and to prevail.

In our view – as with any behavioural change – individuals have to SEE it.  When these toxic behaviours are played out in an objective setting and in a way that doesn’t cause genuine harm to the individuals involved – there is a power and immediacy that supersedes any written policy, organisational values or guidance documentation.  When people witness harassing behaviours and they see/hear the impact of those behaviours on the individuals involved, it creates a visceral connection to this topic that is otherwise very hard to illicit.

Equally, having honest conversations with peers – brought about by holding up a mirror to organisational culture and the (anonymised) lived experience of colleagues is incredibly powerful – because people might ‘see themselves’ in the scenarios and – for those with genuine blindspots – can bring about ‘a-ha’ moments where they realise their behaviours or attitudes might be contributing to the issue either directly as a perpetrator, or indirectly, by not speaking up themselves and/or preventing others from doing the same. Wherever we see it or experience it, the responsibility lies with us all to recognise that sexual harassment and misconduct has no place in our society.

And if sexual harassment exists within a workplace setting – it’s likely that those behaviours and attitudes will extend into an individual’s personal life too – and, regardless of the setting, can lead to tragic consequences. We’ve seen this happen before in the case of Sarah Everard, her killer had engaged in acts of sexual misconduct and written misogynistic and abusive messages on social media with his colleagues before he murdered her.  We can never know if the outcome might have been different, but many believe that if these crimes had been taken more seriously and investigated more thoroughly, her tragic murder might have been prevented.

On a macro level, laws and regulatory frameworks are increasingly focused on supporting the prevention of inappropriate behaviours at work – but as individuals we also have a role to play – and we need the skills and confidence to speak up when we see or experience instances of sexual harassment or misconduct in our organisations.

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