A complete culture shift is needed if we’re to eradicate abuse in the workplace

Posted on: 4 mins read
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Hywel Thomas

Senior Associate Solicitor, Abuse

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Hywel Thomas is a Solicitor in the abuse law team at Simpson Millar

Barely a week goes by now without worrying reports of sexual harassment or assault in a workplace setting hitting the headlines.

And while my employment lawyer colleagues would be able to speak with authority about the role that an employer must play in keeping their employees safe, the coverage suggest that something, somewhere, simply isn’t working.

From fast food retailers, through to major broadcasters, retailers and even the NHS and within government, more and more organisations – public and private sector - are coming under scrutiny for their failure to act on allegations of inappropriate, and in some cases even criminal, behaviour.

Whilst the businesses in question all operate in very different sectors, and employ staff with wildly different skill sets, experience and ambitions, there is a common theme that runs throughout all of the different reports; a cover up culture which appears to, at best, shirk off any indication of a problem. Or, at worst, proactively protects the perpetrators.

In July a number of McDonalds workers spoke out about a toxic culture of sexual assault, harassment, racism and bullying.

In the same month, BBC Newsnight reported that a "predatory culture" still exists around the House of Commons, with six staff saying that inappropriate flirting and sexual misconduct is still prevalent.

And in September a major analysis of NHS staff revealed a pattern of female trainees being abused by senior male surgeons, with female surgeons saying they are being sexually harassed, assaulted and in some cases raped by colleagues.

This particular issue was highlighted further to extensive research carried out by the University of Exeter, the University of Surrey and the Working Party on Sexual Misconduct in Surgery, with the BBC reporting that nearly two-thirds of women surgeons who responded said they had been the target of sexual harassment, and a third had been sexually assaulted by colleagues in the past five years.

Furthermore, the women say they fear reporting incidents will damage their careers and they lack confidence the NHS will take action.

This is deeply concerning and suggests that there is a culture of secrecy throughout the ranks, or at the very least a deference, which is leading to complaints being overlooked.

Sadly, it is all rather reminiscent of the issues that were identified in private schools, children’s homes, and religious organisations some years ago, it the cover up culture allowing the abuse culture to manifest, and causing immeasurable harm to those being abused in the process.

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So, what needs to change?

The issue of sexual abuse within the workplace is not one that I feel can necessarily be addressed by further legislation, as many of these acts are already illegal.

Likewise, those who are subjected to abuse within a workplace setting can access further legal redress – including bringing a claim for compensation against their employer through an employment tribunal.

Alternatively, it is also possible to bring a civil claim for compensation against their employer of the assailant if the assaults happened during the course of their employment. Exposure to such a financial risk is, unfortunately, still not enough for some employers to ensure the safety of their more vulnerable employees.

Instead, the problem appears to lie with the ways institutions are tackling the problem. Or, arguably, not tackling it.

The research referenced previously relating to surgeons in the NHS suggests that victims are frightened to raise concerns. Either because they fear it will impact their career progression, or possibly because they don’t think they will be taken seriously.

Debatably, reporting your assault or harassment to the very authority that has failed to protect you is not the most reassuring proposition. Especially if there has been no tangible effort to manifest a new culture of support and acceptance within the workplace.

One potential solution, therefore, could be that complaints are made directly to the police, or possibly an alternative, external organisation. At that point, the onus is very much on the relevant body to take the complaints seriously and act accordingly.

Simultaneously, companies need to consider a fundamental shift in the workplace culture. Currently, the evidence suggests that in many businesses even when complaints are raised internally, via the correct channels, the concerns of the individual are overlooked or ignored.

Given the current prevalence of headlines regarding workplace abuse that absolutely cannot be allowed to continue, and while it is right that investigations now take place into the allegations of historic sexual abuse within private and public sector settings, and that the perpetrators are held to account, it is imperative that people still working within these organisations feel protected.

Furthermore, organisations need to know that while the cover up approach to managing things may ‘protect’ their reputation in the short term, it will inevitably cause more harm in the longer term.

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