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NZ leaders and businesses: Time’s up

I have some bad news for the leaders of businesses and organisations of New Zealand. Before you rush to the drawer and dust off your sexual harassment policy in light of Newsroom’s recent investigation into Russell McVeagh, you should probably know now that it isn’t going to cut it as a response.   

Let’s be honest, we all know this isn’t limited to one law firm or the legal profession. It will only be a matter of months before many lights are shone into dark cupboards full of skeletons you’ve all been hiding and ignoring. And your sexual harassment policy hasn’t done a damn thing to prevent those skeletons from piling up so it’s not going to help now.  

We already know the medical profession has a problem with it, with nearly half of all emergency doctors and trainees reporting that they’ve been bullied, discriminated against, or sexually harassed by their colleagues while on the job. We know it’s happened in our music, film and television industries. And beyond the ivory tower echelons of high status industries we know it’s happening on the "glass floor" with 60 percent of women restaurant workers surveyed in the US saying they have been sexually harassed on the job, most on at least a weekly basis. 

You should probably re-examine the idea that your corporate diversity policies and awards will hold much stock now too. Because Time’s Up. Not just on tolerating, excusing or tidying away sexual harassment but on lip service to solving the problem.

Your sexual harassment policies aren’t going to save you. You should probably re-examine the idea that your corporate diversity policies and awards will hold much stock now too. Because Time’s Up. Not just on tolerating, excusing or tidying away sexual harassment but on lip service to solving the problem. It’s up on one-off seminars on the subject done largely to cover your arses. It’s up on carefully crafted PR campaigns that speak to your tolerance and embracing of diversity initiatives when you don’t walk the walk. It’s up on power, fear and hierarchy being used to control workers. It’s up on toxic masculinity and the cultural norms that equate masculinity with control, aggression and violence. It’s up on these norms and behaviours being markers of how to succeed in the workplace. It’s up on pay inequality, male dominated management and leadership teams and unreasonable working conditions. It’s up on secrecy. 

Time’s Up of course is the name of the movement kicked off at the Golden Globes this year. It is the sequel to the #MeToo movement which encouraged people to share their stories about sexual assault, rape, abuse and harassment and resulted in a global show of just how prevalent the problem is. Where #MeToo was about individual revelation and collective horror, Time’s Up is a co-ordinated effort to turn the tide on conditions that breed the kinds of cultures where these crimes have been allowed to happen. 

Making it easier to come forward about sexual harassment or assault goes some way to stopping the problem. How you handle the people accused and look after the victims also contributes to stomping it out but much of this has been done, and is still done, in secrecy. It’s not visible to other employees and you’re just applying a Band-Aid to a problem that actually requires an amputation or a transplant.   

You see, this isn’t about a few badly-behaved men. It might only be a small percentage of people who are the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault, but they are essentially supported in doing it by workplaces that favour secrecy over transparency, hierarchy and status over collaboration, fear over honesty and entitlement over merit. If our workplaces are somewhat masculine in structure, often times resembling military units with their hierarchy and culture of subservience and deference, then surely the kind of toxic masculinity that incites violence against women and labels emotion, compassion, and empathy "unmanly”, will have leeched into your business somewhere. 

How you handle the people accused and look after the victims also contributes to stomping it out but much of this has been done, and is still done, in secrecy. It’s not visible to other employees and you’re just applying a Band-Aid to a problem that actually requires an amputation or a transplant.   

When I asked people on Twitter what Time’s Up meant to them in the context of our workplaces, I received a message from someone who had been sexually assaulted by a then junior member of the legal profession. Most striking was their comment about the endemic nature of the problem.  

"…the violence isn’t just from older lawyers, it’s endemic within the type of men who are hired at the big firms and who “make it through” law school. It’s in the families that produce men who can graduate, the unis perpetuate it, the big law firms confirm it."

The problem is endemic and the rot is deep. If you’re burying your head in the sand and hoping it will all go away, you’re deluded. As movements like Time’s Up gain momentum and people find courage in solidarity, more will speak out. If your plan is to assemble an army of HR and PR people to paper over the cracks, you need to rethink your priorities. Get your executive team together, tomorrow, this week, or next to discuss what’s going on. Start a quiet internal conversation about whether this is something your employees have experienced. Examine how good the pastoral care is from both universities and teams running placement programmes. Take a leaf out of Spark Managing Director Simon Moutter’s book and confront your failures in your diversity efforts head on. Let women gather and talk about how to better negotiate their pay, introduce flexible working and ensure women returning to the workplace after having a baby are given a fair deal. Listen to your employees. Promote transparency and honesty. Send clear signals that it’s not just sexual harassment you’re not going to tolerate but aggressive masculine behaviours and languages. Moutter has gone so far as to "Cut the macho themes and analogies". Find out how deep the rot is and tackle it head on.  

Take a leaf out of Spark Managing Director Simon Moutter’s book and confront your failures in your diversity efforts head on. Let women gather and talk about how to better negotiate their pay, introduce flexible working and ensure women returning to the workplace after having a baby are given a fair deal. Listen to your employees.

The Harvard Business Review is currently publishing an excellent series on this subject called Now what?. In their article, ‘Bad Behaviour is Preventable’, James Campbell Quick and M. Ann McFadyen write: 

"Sexual aggressors destroy lives, leaving long legacies of suffering. Yet sexual harassment in the workplace is an occupational health problem that does not occur in isolation. Rather, it’s generally a result of cumulative events and thus predictable and preventable. Workplace sexual harassment is no accident, and with proper surveillance and prevention mechanisms, it may be eliminated altogether." 

Just as democracy dies in the darkness so too does fairness, equality and opportunity for change. You need to start shining the light on your business or organisation yourselves, not out of fear for what might be discovered by others or to plan your defence, but in the best interests of the people who work for you.  

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