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Nine steps to drive harassers out of business

By Deborah Tarrant

Accounting leaders have put workplace sexual misconduct on their agendas. Is your firm taking all the right steps to prevent it?

Sexual harassment has been the hottest topic in business for months. A growing number of women – and some men – have leapt to the call of the #MeToo Twitter hashtag following sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, Melbourne mayor Robert Doyle and many others.

Despite its beginnings in the peculiar environment of Hollywood, sexual harassment is now a discussion topic in office kitchens, among leadership teams and in boardrooms and business forums. The discussion has moved from movie gossip to workplace safety and reputational risk.

Sexual harassment has finally found its tipping point.

Hollywood may have sparked it, but the numbers have long been available. And if you think workplaces should be safe places, the numbers may surprise you. In early 2017, the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey found one in two women and one in four men had experienced sexual harassment – including harassment at work – during their lives.

Those numbers support a 2012 Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) survey, which reported that one in four women and one in six men had been sexually harassed in the workplace over the previous five years. The AHRC received 247 sexual harassment complaints in 2016–17.

While #MeToo zoomed in on power abuse in show biz, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, says it occurs across all industries. That’s reason enough to give managers everywhere cause to pause for thought – and for action to stymie such behaviour and its damaging consequences for employees and the wider business.

“We’d be naïve to think it won’t happen in the accounting profession,” says Leanne Bloomfield, head of human resources at mid-tier firm HLB Mann Judd Sydney, one of the few firms willing to go public when Acuity asked experts and firm leaders to share their key steps for managing sexual harassment issues.

1. Understand what defines sexual harassment

A fundamental first step is to make sure everyone clearly understands what sexual harassment is, says Professor Sara Charlesworth, deputy head of research at RMIT Business School.

“There’s often an assumption that the only form of sexual harassment involves a physical assault, whereas it’s defined as unwelcome sexual advances of any kind,” says Charlesworth, whose research focuses on gender inequality in employment. “The most common form reported by Australian women, and some men, involves innuendo, constant inappropriate comments, ribald jokes, leering – the stuff often viewed as grey.”

Powerful men are certainly not the only the people to harass workmates. “The AHRC survey showed the significant extent of sexual harassment between peers – overwhelmingly so, is when it’s sexual harassment of men by men,” she notes. Make no mistake about it, Charlesworth adds, “Practices such as hazing or bastardisation happen in white collar workplaces as well as blue collar workplaces.”

In a Harvard Business Review article, academics Colleen Ammerman and Professor Boris Groysberg also highlight the misconception that this type of harassment is due to sexual desire gone wrong. “Scholars have found in psychology labs as well as in large datasets that men sexualise female co-workers as a way to ‘keep them in their place’, especially when they feel that women are outperforming them in traditional masculine domains,” they write.

Ammerman and Groysberg call sexual harassment not a women’s issue but a leadership issue.

2. Emphasise tone at the top

The key to prevention lies in organisational culture. Upholding a respectful working environment by having leaders who ‘walk the talk’ is the resounding message from all experts and firm leaders Acuity interviewed.

“While sexual harassment can happen anywhere in an organisation and in any direction, the role of leaders is particularly important in terms of role modelling and communicating, setting the expectation and demonstrating their commitment to the agenda,” says Deloitte’s newly appointed chief human resources officer, Sam Sheppard.

More than 25 years working across sectors, often in male-dominated industries, has shown Sheppard that ‘tone at the top’ is vital. So is making harassment an issue for “every employee and everyone who enters the workplace”.

At accounting firm BDO, head of people and culture Peter O’Sullivan believes the firm has fortunate timing: the tipping point on sexual harassment has coincided with the launch of BDO’s diversity and inclusion strategy.

“There’s a natural connection between this and reinforcing the right sort of culture to make sure we can prevent sexual harassment issues arising, and if they do happen, that we deal with them in an appropriate way,” he says. “We have the opportunity to open the conversation with the right cultural tone.”

For O’Sullivan, it’s most important the firm’s 1400-plus employees feel “they have a voice and will be listened to”.

3. Bring in the bystanders

The notion of making everyone responsible for preventing sexual harassment is growing, spearheaded by an AHRC call to action. The commission urges co-workers who witness sexual harassment in any form to call it out.

HLB Mann Judd’s Bloomfield strongly supports this approach. “The message to employees is ‘don’t join in and don’t ignore’,” she says. “By ignoring the behaviour, we are accepting it, and there’s every chance of the behaviour continuing.”

Bloomfield says everyone at HLB Mann Judd has a responsibility for the health and safety of both themselves and others.

HLB Mann Judd audits culture and behaviours via surveys on health and safety, staff satisfaction and values. Bloomfield also recommends “a visual audit”, covering inappropriate posters, screenshots and images that may be inappropriate or offensive in the office.

You can learn more about building and auditing organisational culture in CA ANZ’s Managing Culture: a good practice guide.

4. Deliver on essentials: policies, procedures and training

Employers often fall over on sexual harassment issues by failing to understand their legal responsibilities. A clear policy to prevent sexual harassment – a requirement under Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act 1984 – is essential.

A complaints or grievance handling process is also needed, says Alex Grayson, an employment lawyer at Maurice Blackburn. It should stipulate the steps to be taken if someone has been sexually harassed in the workplace, she says, and both policy and process must be enforced with training. Audits to check that processes have been followed after a claim has been filed are also advised.

The legislation puts the onus on the employer to show all “reasonable steps” have been taken to prevent sexual harassment. Grayson also notes the high stakes for employers: courts have awarded significant six-figure damages for sexual harassment cases in recent years.

A board or senior management must have proper policies in place. Make sure people understand that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated in their workplace, tell complainants their rights and let them know they won’t be victimised if they come forward.

An employer’s vicarious liability – that is, a legal responsibility for someone else’s acts or omissions – extends even to those employees who are working off-site.

For employees, general awareness starts with induction, followed by continuous training, optimally no less than once every two years, indicates Deloitte’s Sheppard. That, she says, may be supplemented by e-learning.

She likes team workshops with active dialogue, where employees or leaders can “take the example of an inappropriate joke around the table and play out scenarios so people can understand what’s acceptable and what’s not. Just because it doesn’t negatively impact you, doesn’t mean someone else won’t find it offensive”.

5. Foster the courage to speak up

Now that sexual harassment has hit the zeitgeist, the challenge is keeping the topic ‘live’ so everyone feels comfortable talking about it.

How can people be encouraged to speak up? One way is by informing them of changes to policy and process and reminders at team meetings of the importance of living the firm’s values, suggests HLB Mann Judd’s Bloomfield.

Firms can also encourage openness by providing opportunities through extended networks, not just a manager. “We have a young workforce,” she says. “It is therefore extremely important to provide individuals with a support network of people they feel comfortable talking to, possibly a counselling partner, manager, or mentor/buddy, and reinforce that HR’s door is always open.” All the firms Acuity spoke to also had employee assistance programs.

Should a sexual harassment issue arise, Bloomfield recognises it takes courage to speak up. But she’s confident the firm’s 185 employees and 19 partners will do so because “the culture supports the policies and encourages ‘calling out’ of behaviours from executive level down to undergraduates”.

6. Take complaints seriously: act early and quickly

A huge pitfall for firms is failing to act when a complaint surfaces. Some firms see it as an affront to the organisation and it’s a big reason so few people report sexual harassment, says Charlesworth. In the AHRC survey, only one in five who’d experienced sexual harassment made a formal complaint.

People may be asked if they’re sure it happened. Do they have witnesses? Was it just horsing around? Or they may be told it might not be a good step for their career.

“This adds to the pressure on the person who believes they’ve been sexually harassed to provide evidence and witnesses,” says Charlesworth. “People tend to think they won’t be believed or that nothing will be done. If you create the virtuous circle where managers take it seriously and the person who’s harassed isn’t suddenly made redundant, people are encouraged to speak up.”

Employers often wrongly think that acknowledging a problem means they will need to sack an offender. But when Charlesworth and QUT Business School’s Professor Paula McDonald concluded a major study of workplace sexual harassment in 2014, they found that was not what complainants typically wanted. Instead, the harassed employee typically wants two things: first, for the behaviour to stop, and second, an acknowledgement it happened and that it was wrong. After that, they want an apology – if not from their colleague who behaved inappropriately, then a strong show of support from the organisation. “Frequently they don’t want to make a formal complaint,” Charlesworth says.

A lament common to victims, organisations and external consultants participating in the research was that action to address the problem was not taken sooner.

7. Have that difficult conversation

When a complaint against a senior executive or partner arises, how should colleagues tackle it? Sweeping it under the carpet or closing ranks around the accused – methods that emerged in recent high-profile sexual harassment cases – are ill-advised.

Executives at Miramax and The Weinstein Company, for instance, are reported to have long harboured concerns about Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour. Yet no-one acted.

“It’s the same as if you’d found someone’s hand in the till or they’d been fiddling their expenses – the difficult conversation has to take place regardless of who they are,” says Charlesworth. “People find it terribly uncomfortable, because it’s not just seen as a professional ethical failure, but it’s seen as going to someone’s character.”

If a CEO, MD or partner is involved, calling in an independent workplace investigator is one course of action so as to eliminate conflicts of interest. At this level, BDO’s O’Sullivan says, it’s a serious risk management issue, so human resources leaders or other executives dealing with the issue need a direct line to the board. “If there’s a hotspot within the organisation where there’s a lot of complaints or an unusually high level of complaints broadly, the board also needs to know,” he says.

8. Provide all-round support

While many organisations opt to conduct their own investigations of sexual harassment allegations, external specialists may also be called in to ensure all parties are listened to, that no pre-existing biases come into play, and to avoid the ‘he said, she said’ wrangle.

It’s important to keep clearly in mind that all parties require support. “Not every claim of sexual harassment will be upheld,” Deloitte’s Sheppard points out. “The dignity and self-respect of all must be maintained. And in the event that a claim is not upheld, everyone needs to return to the work environment feeling supported and able to continue their careers.”

9. Watch out for danger zones

One last word: Workplace social events are renowned for lowering inhibitions and heightening risks, a point raised by all three interviewees from accounting firms. Former Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, accused of harassment last year, is reported to have held boozy Tuesday evening private dinners at the Town Hall.

“More and more I see leaders removing themselves from social situations in organisations for fear of being misrepresented, misinterpreted or becoming an easy target,” says Sheppard. Instead of retreating, she says, leaders need to consider creating specific guidelines or rules for social events and issue timely reminders before the drinks are poured.

Deborah Tarrant is a Sydney-based business writer and editorial consultant.

This article was originally published in the April 2018 of Acuity.