Comment

‘Zero tolerance’ flies in face of reality

A former Russell McVeagh lawyer*, with close knowledge of its handling of complaints of sexual assault and harassment against summer clerks, says beware of the law firm's carefully worded public responses. 

When you read from a detached distance, stories like the Newsroom.co.nz expose on the Russell McVeagh sexual assault scandal, it is all too easy to take hook-line-and-sinker the obvious public relations catch phrases which such a firm inevitably rolls out in response.

They will surround the breaking story with white noise in a hope to put out the flames before it can gain traction. There have already been all-too-familiar phrases and finessed rhetoric deployed by Russell McVeagh to address the revelations of serious and systemic sexual harassment, and more recently, sexual assault.

It is not until you happen to be standing so proximate to such a serious series of events that it becomes apparent how damaging this kind of language is to the victims involved when, as is often the case, it is in no way an accurate reflection of what occurred.

Having watched this saga unfold from a relative degree of proximity in my opinion Russell McVeagh’s reaction to the very compelling allegations of sexual assault and harassment was commercial and focused on harm minimisation – and not exclusively in the best interests and wellbeing of the vulnerable victims as well as several staff who had bravely chosen to support them.

This disjunct between what Russell McVeagh has said to the media and the reality is best illustrated by comparing what actually happened to the representations made in the carefully crafted spin that highly paid PR consultants would have encouraged Russell McVeagh to pump out.

First, they have chosen language that implies it is an isolated incident:

“Over two years ago we received serious allegations related to incidents in Wellington”.

In reality, one of the men involved, a relatively senior figure, was already on notice for related behaviour and had been the subject of discreet oversight from the partnership as a result – discrete here being the operative word.

Also, after having worked at Russell McVeagh previously I can say that this behaviour was merely a recent iteration of a long-standing culture of predatory conduct that pervaded the firm, both the Auckland and Wellington offices, and was responsible for numerous incidents over the years, all of which have been quietly manoeuvred to an end.

Second, Russell McVeagh has implied it took decisive action by stating:

“Those who were the subject of the allegations left the firm following the investigation. Out of respect for the privacy of the women involved, we have no further details to share”.

Also, note their use of “zero tolerance” which Pip Greenwood has sought to embed into every statement made, a claim that in my view seems in contradiction with how the firm has handled past incidents.

Spot the very carefully chosen language here – the men “left the firm” – words that gloss over the manner of their departure. At the time Russell McVeagh had all it needed to fire the men, as a “zero tolerance” policy would demand. Instead however, they will not say now if the men were fired or resigned. Had it been a firing there would have been implications for the firm and possible scrutiny of the kind now being seen. 

The end result was both males went on to positions elsewhere, not an uncommon occurrence in the profession and a more innocent narrative for a sudden change of roles. Some work followed from clients.

Pip Greenwood's denial that any assistance was provided to the pair to find new jobs goes against reason and logic, as anyone familiar with the inner working of a large law firm will know.

Consider how this gentle and mindful shuffling-off of the male accused would look from the female victims' perspective, especially when in my view it is in stark contrast to their treatment.

Finally, it is worth pointing out Russell McVeagh has paired this statement on the manner of the men’s exit with a subsequent statement on its desire to protect the privacy of the females involved. This again appropriates the victims' interest for the purpose of shutting down compromising questions on the manner of the men’s exit from the firm.

Third, Russell McVeagh have time and time again stated that at all times they only ever had the interests of the women involved at heart:

“...Russell McVeagh has always taken employees’ concerns extremely seriously. Our firm is committed to ensuring our workplace is a supportive and safe environment for all of our staff and their safety and wellbeing is our utmost priority.”

On the contrary, as has already been made clear, this was not Russell McVeagh’s sole priority.

Some of the affected females were subjected to criticism and undue pressure, separating them to weaken their ability to preserve their own interests through supporting each other, and, one by one, applying pressure to secure their silence.

I am also aware that at the time there were moves to manage and suppress the mounting media interest, hence the time it has taken for the scandal to break.

Finally, over the last two and a bit years Russell McVeagh appears to have made a “window dressing” effort to insulate itself from potential criticism over this matter:

We have zero tolerance for bad behaviour and will have no hesitation to act if we are alerted to behaviour that contravenes our values... We continue to take all possible steps to create a ‘speak out’ culture and as part of this, have made it clear to our staff that there will be no repercussions for speaking out in any circumstance...

In addition, we have been and are working closely with many of the other major law firms and the universities to develop a ‘transition to work’ programme and have appointed an independent person, to provide additional support to our staff and graduates within the profession as they commence their careers from university.

Where to start here? As already mentioned, the claim of zero tolerance flies in the face of what I and many others who have since come forward witnessed while at the firm. "Values” were never discussed with staff, and the actions of many of the firm's senior members created a distinct impression that there was what in my view amounted to a values vacuum. Concerningly, the human resources team within the firm was viewed with deep mistrust and regarded as a surveillance organ for the partnership, rather than a trustworthy safe haven for those who needed help.

Those whom I have spoken to about Russell McVeagh’s post-scandal conduct share my view that the firm's rebrand (which swiftly followed the events some two years ago), and its concerted effort to inject itself into the Women in Law and diversity-advancing agenda, seemed to be an effort to position itself well and mitigate any PR fallout that may eventuate. It also helped preserve ties with the universities and students whom it relies on to replenish its ranks.

If the steps taken by Russell McVeagh were driven by a desire to do the right thing, why were they not taken many years ago in response to many other incidents that never saw the light of day, and why do these steps always feature in close company with their own interests? This is a question I think Victoria University and the Law Society must ask themselves before making any further positive remarks about Russell McVeagh’s response.

* Newsroom agreed not to name the author, partly to protect those involved.

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