EY ski trip disciplinary: Sexist humour is no jokeby
The fact EY didn’t sack the partner who acted in a sexually aggressive manner towards a junior trainee shows it did not recognise the severity of the situation, writes Blaire Palmer.
Back in the 90s I was a journalist. I was ambitious and keen to impress. A more senior role opened up in the team and I asked my editor if we could discuss it. He was on his way for a cigarette break so I went with him and, as we walked back, I offered him a Polo mint. “No thanks” he said, “I’m not planning to snog you”. Quickly I responded “Well, it would take more than a Polo for me to snog you!”.
That’s how we dealt with such ‘jokes’ back in the 90s. And there are plenty of people who believe this is still how we should deal with it, by joking back, being one of the lads, showing that we aren’t affected and letting senior people get away with it.
I’m not in that camp. I’m still pretty pleased with my retort. Normally I only think of something to say hours later so my spontaneity in that moment gives me some pride. But I’m much prouder of today’s generation of young women who refuse to tolerate crude comments and sexist humour at work.
Sexist comment from EY partner
The story of Neil Hutt, a transactions partner at EY, who made lewd comments to a junior staff member at a company skiing trip, has been all over the news.
Hutt eventually resigned his post but initially had his pay docked by £75,000 (How much was this guy on?) and was told to attend diversity training. At an ICAEW tribunal he was further reprimanded and fined £11,900.
EY then held an all-staff meeting promising staff to do better in future. However, not everyone at the firm believes EY fully understands the issue.
Its failure to fire Hutt straight away or to address the issue with staff until the story entered the public domain suggests that leaders in the firm did not appreciate the severity of the comments Hutt made, the impact they had on the employees concerned or an understanding of their role in colluding with such behaviour.
A shift in culture
Of course, it is possible that Hutt’s behaviour was totally out of character. However, many men out there will be just as shocked as women have been. These days, such attitudes would never even cross their mind, let alone be expressed.
Someone who makes such jokes must have been flagrantly ignoring or actively resisting the shift in culture around language and behaviour that’s been happening for at least a decade.
In fact, even over the last two years I have observed a massive shift in attitudes and language, much greater awareness of how to create a safe and equitable workplace and much greater sensitivity around subtle and not so subtle sexism, racism and discriminatory language of all kinds.
Where have you been if you haven’t noticed that and asked yourself whether your attitudes are out of date?
Speaking out is not a weakness
Claims that today’s young employees are woke snowflakes who need to toughen up misunderstand what is happening and why it matters. It is not weakness we are seeing when a woman speaks out, it is strength.
I may have prided myself in taking my editor’s comments in my stride but really I was too afraid to call him out. I was afraid for the negative impact on my career, I was afraid to look like I couldn’t take the heat, I was afraid of being seen as a ‘girl’ rather than one of the boys.
For those of us who worked through the 80s and 90s and for whom it was normal to be manhandled, touched, teased, spoken to sexually and who stood by and watched it happen to others, feeling that it was best to hide our discomfort for the sake of our jobs, it is tempting to expect young people today to show the same ‘resilience’. But those comments were never ‘just a joke’.
They were a way to keep us down, to uphold the imbalance of power, to provide a victim who could be the butt of that joke without any consequences. While half of the office were having fun, the other half were suffering in silence.
Holding senior people to account
What we are seeing now is young men and women willing to call out such behaviour and hold senior people to account. That includes the perpetrator of the abuse but also those who try to brush it under the carpet, explain it away as being the inappropriate behaviour of one rogue employee, and placate people by saying ‘we promise to do better’ when moments ago they were only willing to slap a person on the wrists.
It’s time to take our younger employees seriously on these matters. We need them to help us. Rather than organising a meeting to explain how we are going to do better, we need to organise meetings to listen to what we can do differently. Rather than seeing their discomfort as naivety or immaturity, we need to be willing to learn from their sophistication and bravery.
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Blaire Palmer is a leadership coach, author and conference speaker. As CEO of That People Thing she works with senior executives to help them rethink how to lead in these fast-changing times. Blaire is a judge in the Investing in People category of the 2020 Accounting Excellence Awards...