Sexual harassment: Can the profession escape the spotlight?

Accountancy firms' attitudes to MTD
Philip Fisher
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Over the last few weeks, the film industry, sport, theatre and politics have all been rocked by revelations of inappropriate sexual approaches as the old have preyed on the young.

In my series on staffing, a reference to a real-life situation where a male partner attempted to take advantage of a junior employee led to one response suggesting that I was being sexist. In fact, as another respondent identified, my intention was to highlight what I thought was a significant issue. As recent events have demonstrated, it goes way beyond that.

While some readers of this article might be mildly amused, bored or shocked by revelations about bad behaviour by the rich and famous, it would be a big mistake for those in the accountancy profession to assume that they and their colleagues are whiter than white.

If my experience over many years is anything to go by, a significant number of senior individuals working in large, medium and small accountancy firms have indulged in behaviour that would not look impressive if they were ever subjected to a complaint either within the practice or through their professional body.

Were I the managing partner of any firm today, my first action will probably be to cancel this year’s Christmas party. At the very least, this would prevent a bunch of fairly sleazy old men from making rude comments and leering at juniors in their revealing party frocks (or tight, hired black-tie suits). It is also probable that such drastic action would stop unwanted physical approaches that the young may feel unable to reject without harming their career prospects.

Partners meetings might also need to be looked into, since these are often an opportunity for inappropriate jokes and laddish remarks about the more attractive members of staff of the opposite sex.

While the majority of such cases seem to be male-on-female, it is not exclusively so. I have been propositioned on more than one occasion by (female) colleagues in terms that were quite threatening, while I have also witnessed approaches by a relatively senior female member of staff to other females. No doubt, the male-on-male equivalent exists in the profession too.

The problem now is that this issue has got completely out of hand. While I doubt that very many would object to the proposition that if somebody tries to force themselves on a colleague without their consent that is wrong, the world has moved on.

Sir Michael Fallon and the female journalist whose knee he allegedly stroked constantly at the dinner table during a Conservative Party Conference seemed to regard his behaviour as nothing more than a bit of a laugh. We will have to see whether the Parliamentary Standards Committee agrees, while the Prime Minister might feel obliged to take her own precipitate action to prevent reputational risk to her party, especially if other rumours apparently going round Parliament prove to be well-founded.

I doubt that many of us would now risk following the example set by the Secretary of State for Defence.

It gets worse. In theory and quite possibly in practice, if a partner tells his secretary or a new recruit that they are looking particularly attractive, that could also be regarded as abusive behaviour.

Where do we go from here? The best answer is probably that I haven’t a clue.

Perhaps, if nothing else, all firms should very quickly develop a policy with regard to sexual harassment covering these issues and making it absolutely clear what is and is not acceptable. In this way, they might save a great deal of embarrassment for all concerned and possibly also a significant sum of money for the practice, if it prevents legal action in connection with an unfair dismissal at some point in the future.

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01st Nov 2017 18:17

"It gets worse. In theory and quite possibly in practice, if a partner tells his secretary or a new recruit that they are looking particularly attractive, that could also be regarded as abusive behaviour."

We've seen all this stuff widely reported in professions before. See:

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02nd Nov 2017 11:39

A total load of cobblers and people need to get a life. How can you judge someone today on what they did 30 years ago when it was acceptable back then. Look at James Bond, the Sweeney, Benny Hill, carry on films etc crudeness was deemed humorous in these times.

You cannot now accuse James Bond of sexual harassment for slapping [***] Galore on her [***] in 1962 (with a name like that, come on). I bet Honor Blackman wont be offering to repay all the cash she made on the back of been victimised all those years ago.

George Best was legend in the 70's now he would be in jail as a sex pest.

Some people just need to grow up, life is not always good, there is a distinct difference between flirting, and winking with your secretary and becoming a sex pest.

How many of these young women who had their head turned by powerful men are still happily married.

Thanks (6)
02nd Nov 2017 12:04

i can't comment on the workplace in the 70s and early 80s but that said i cannot think of any occasion when it would be appropriate to pop my hand on someone's leg. (i don't take being a 'tactile' person as being an excuse) - maybe hand on the shoulder or something but no more than that.

As someone on twitter put it....would you be so eager to brush this stuff under the carpet if it was interest from the same who had put his hand on your thigh in a suggestive manner....

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02nd Nov 2017 14:12

Forgive me if I have entirely missed the point regarding Sir Michael Fallon, however the matter was resolved 15 years ago between himself and the journalist.

She threated to basically punch him if he carried on, so he stopped. Fair play to her for doing so.

She even mentions now due to the whole scandal coming to light that if this is the reason that he has now resigned, that it is entirely absurd.

Which I agree with.

If we were all judged based on something so long ago that has been learnt from and moved on, then none of us would be working where we are now, because we'd all be stuck in the past.

Does not mean ALL past actions can be ignored as some are more serious than others, and I accept that. I just feel that the issue with Sir Fallon has become out-of-hand.

I am only seeing bits here and there, so if I am mistaken please let me know.

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to JasonRodwell
03rd Nov 2017 10:21

As many on Twitter have asked: if it wasn't unacceptable, why did she threaten to punch him?
If you wouldn't say it to your son or daughter, or touch them in that place, don't do it to a colleague. May not cover every possible permutation but is a pretty safe rule to start from.

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to Karen Watson
03rd Nov 2017 16:41

And I agree Karen, however the matter was still resolved 15 years ago. He apologised and she accepted that.

She still holds the view that it is completely absurd if he resigned for that and that alone, and I still agree with that.

NB - I know that there are new allegations that have now evolved from this nullifying my entire matter, so no need to raise me on those.

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to JasonRodwell
04th Nov 2017 10:46

Julia Hartley-Brewer was, and is, in a position to decide whether or not she takes offence, and how to respond - her molester, in turn, decided *she* was in a position to probably carry out her threat.
This is not the most frequent workplace experience.

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03rd Nov 2017 10:25

Really? Everybody should be segregated from everybody else, physically. No two people should ever come into contact with each other.

Conversation should be restricted to the absolute minimum required for work purposes. No small talk, or personal conversation will be permitted.

Any attempt to engage with someone other than for work purposes is not only discouraged, but may result in you being sacked in 15 or 20 years.

That should fix it.

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to SteLacca
03rd Nov 2017 16:43

I genuinely feel like it is becoming that way.

I am becoming more and more worried that any kind of interesting "small talk" that makes me the human that I've grown up to be may be misinterpreted in such a way that I am out of the door and never returning again.

Seems like we must become robots, before the robots overcome us, right?

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to SteLacca
04th Nov 2017 10:52

If you can't have a normal social conversation with a person of whichever gender floats your boat, without making suggestive remarks or putting your hands all over them, your clients must be a pretty forgiving bunch.
In addition to my previous "how-tos" - if you wouldn't do it to someone who might take their business elsewhere, don't do it to a colleague or employee.
How hard DOES this have to be?

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03rd Nov 2017 16:34

Hmmm. If you're a man, review in your mind what your suggestive comment to a woman would sound like if it was being said to you by a larger man. In prison.

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to Red Leader
03rd Nov 2017 21:09

You have a point RL.

All I can say is if these people find these offensive they have never had a night out in Newcatsle.

Knee touching wouldn't even register as an incident, although plenty of people would offer to punch you in the face, and that's just the girls

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to Glennzy
04th Nov 2017 10:59

I have to admit to wishing I could turf the last bloke I heard making questionable "jokes", to an audience that couldn't answer back, out of Romford station on a Friday night. Easy to be big when holding the conductor's baton, less so when you've only got your own natural charm and good manners to fall back on :)

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06th Nov 2017 13:59

ever remember getting bullied at know nothing serious....just enough to make life harder than it already is. Fast forward 20 years and you bump in to that may be tempted to tell him how it made you feel....and what you think of him....something you didn't contemplate 20 years ago.

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