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.