30 January 2018
Our community looks at sexual misconduct policies in the wake of the Weinstein scandal
Sexual harassment proved to be a major story last year, with Time magazine naming ‘the silence breakers’ as their ‘person of the year’.
The allegations of Hollywood grandee Harvey Weinstein as a serial abuser, and subsequent allegations against other prominent figures, will have prompted many organisations to check their own policies. We asked the Governance and Compliance/Core community how they reacted.
Some 71% reported they were not reviewing their harassment and sexual misconduct policies, with only 14% saying the opposite. A typical response said: ‘We believe we have robust measures in place and have not reacted to this news story per se. We nevertheless take conduct extremely seriously in the company.’
Dealing with harassment brings together a range of methods for handling other forms of abuse. One respondent said: ‘Our suite of measures is fairly standard: detailed policies, a code of conduct and a whistleblowing mechanism when it is difficult to use the usual route to report issues.’
Another said they had ‘an equality and diversity policy’ with ‘a range of ways to report and raise concerns for investigation’. ‘An annual staff survey helps to monitor the experiences of harassment and bullying,’ they added.
Several respondents cited a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ towards sexual harassment. One person said: ‘The cultural values [of my organisation] derive from a Victorian family business and care for employees is paramount. It is embedded in the culture.’
Those looking to change their culture in the wake of the Weinstein story had a few strategies in mind. One respondent said: ‘We are going to review the policy to ensure it is sufficiently robust, but will also increase the communication to raise the profile and ensure that colleagues are fully aware.’
Leadership was a key feature, with one respondent saying their organisation would be ‘nominating two board members to take the lead’. Another said: ‘This will be considered by the people committee as part of the wider people agenda.’
“Recent change of leadership has been very important, as without the right leadership everything else is lip service”
The scale of the abuse uncovered has led many to wonder whether the stories will have a wider impact on workplace culture. On asking our community whether they agreed, one person said: ‘Perhaps on an individual basis staff are more cautious.’
Another said: ‘I think that a lot of sexual misconduct goes unreported because people feel vulnerable and afraid of speaking up. Fear of losing their job, the fact that their complaint may be against someone senior and the potential for nobody believing them can act as deterrents.’
This same respondent noted that some cultures are likely to resist change. ‘Some cultures have developed where making sexist remarks is the norm and people are told to stop being sensitive or the politically correct police,’ they said. ‘Where such behaviour is ingrained in a culture it can take a lot of time to change.’
But another commenter said: ‘Much has changed over the last 15–20 years in the industries I have experience in. For example, there is less office banter, particularly in areas that may cause of offence.
‘That said, it appears from recent press that certain industries are a great deal behind what has become the norm in other industries, in particular where certain individuals appear to have significant influence on potential future employment.’
Personnel changes at the top were also flagged. ‘Recent change of leadership has been very important, as without the right leadership everything else is lip service,’ one person said. Another added: ‘More women in senior positions help create a zero-tolerance culture.’
But one person was sceptical about business’ role in the issue. ‘I do not believe a policy will fix this,’ they said.
‘There are more fundamental issues for society when it comes to equality, including around access to education, alternative working arrangements for primary caregivers, and advancement opportunities for those working part-time or on flexible arrangements.’
If you are a company secretary or governance professional at a leading UK business, and you would like to take part in or comment on future surveys, email email@example.com