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There's no excuse for sexual harassment

28 February 2018

Russell McVeagh is one of New Zealand's leading law firms. It has a reputation for high-quality advice, is widely respected for its legal work and previously won the 2017 Employer of Choice award for a large firm.

However it is currently dealing with serious allegations of sexual abuse of female employees by senior members of staff.

Indeed the publicity surrounding Russell McVeagh includes allegations of ranking women's looks, encouragement of heavy drinking and the use of company money to attend strip shows, known as "going to showies". At least two Russell McVeagh staff members were accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards young female law clerks.

One former Russell McVeagh lawyer said that before the summer law clerks arrived, the firm issued a book with photos and a bio that was referred to as "the menu" by more senior male solicitors. They would trawl through it, mark it up and send it around. Former Russell McVeagh staff members have also said that the firm's internal inquiry into the recently published incident was like "window-dressing".

Of course issues of sexual harassment and abuse are not exclusive to Russell McVeagh or the legal industry. However, it is known that the legal profession has traditionally been dominated by men. The attrition rate for young women lawyers is high and a gender imbalance in the top legal positions has stubbornly and persistently favoured men. Only 17.1 per cent of the lawyers appointed Queen's Counsel since 1988 have been women. In 2017 only three of the 13 lawyers appointed Queen's Counsel were women. It is not hard to believe that at least some of this imbalance is due to sexist attitudes towards women.

The Russell McVeagh publicity is symptomatic of more widespread discrimination against women in society.

Let's look at what can be done to redress the balance.

By far the most important item on the agenda is to cultivate a good workplace culture. Treat all employees with respect and have a genuine concern for their wellbeing. Inappropriate behaviour should be dealt with immediately before it becomes an accepted part of the company culture.

Employers should have clear policies addressing inappropriate workplace behaviour, sexual harassment and alcohol abuse. Policies should state that sexual harassment and misuse of alcohol at work functions is serious misconduct.

Whenever the policy is breached it should be dealt with firmly and immediately so that everybody knows that the policy is not just lip service and the policy is consistently applied and acted on. These policies need to be clearly communicated to staff in order to be really effective. Although Russell McVeagh did have an anti-harassment policy in place, senior partner Pip Greenwood said that they were naively not explicit about their zero-tolerance policy.

Senior staff should lead by example in modelling good conduct and respect for all colleagues, thereby promoting a healthy culture. Employers in any business need to be conscious of the fact that junior staff have little power and are entitled to feel and be respected. Many women may be anxious that raising their concerns or complaints may be harmful to their careers. Society needs to let them know that they do have a voice, and this starts with employers creating environments where they feel safe to speak up.

In Russell McVeagh's case, Greenwood said that there is now a zero tolerance policy and a clear anti-harassment policy. An alcohol awareness programme has also been introduced.

The second element that is important is how a company supports victims afterwards. A thorough and respectful investigation with support being provided to the victim needs to be undertaken. Keep communication high with complainants throughout the investigation so they know something is being done, and thereby feel cared about and safe. Similarly, victims can be supported by obtaining their views on what changes are needed in the business and how they would like to be supported.

Ensure the complainant at the very least does not have to work in close proximity to the alleged perpetrator during the investigation.

It is important to remember that the employers may find themselves responsible for harm caused to employees in the workplace. Having an unsafe workplace can lead to liability on the employer's part. Have support for the victim, not only during the investigation process, but beyond.

Russell McVeagh has put in place people to approach about workplace problems including sexual harassment. Workers are told confidential counselling is available.

A company that does not have good policies in place and does not protect the vulnerable, particularly young women, runs the risk of massive bad publicity, as happened to Russell McVeagh.

Of course any business failing in this area can and should address the problem, make amends and change its culture and regime. Nonetheless, damage will be done in the meantime both to the company brand and to its attractiveness to prospective employees in the future.

Russell McVeagh have taken some important steps to address the problems of workplace culture and the treatment of their young clerks and lawyers. It has appointed an outside consultant to review both its Wellington and Auckland offices on the response to these incidents. The consultant will look at Russell McVeagh's policies on preventing sexual harassment and support for those who wish to make complaints. The reviewer will also look at the organisational culture of the firm.

What policies apply in your workplace to make it safe for the vulnerable, particularly young women? All firms should offer a supportive culture that condemns sexual harassment. Take these steps now and minimise the risk to the business, and more importantly to its staff.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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