The world has long recognised sexual harassment in and around the workplace as an evil that must be stopped. However, in recent weeks the definition and identification of the problem has become the stuff of media headlines.
A significant proportion of men working in politics, film and theatre must be quaking in their boots at the prospect of revelations relating to actions that seemed harmless decades before. To date, women have been exempted from the finger of blame, although they too might not feel wholly comfortable in the current climate of scandal.
One problem is that the law operates on the basis that harassment is defined by the “victim”. As such, sending an email or text with mildly suggestive content, making brief physical contact or a throwaway comment could amount to harassment.
In this context, there seems little doubt that the accountancy profession is likely to face a similar period of accusation, denial and cleansing in the not too distant future.
One issue that compounds an already complex area is the change in society’s attitudes over the last few decades. If you watch almost any movie or TV series set in the second half of the 20th century, the way in which men patronise women is astonishing.
To take a random example, by the end of the first of over 90 episodes, every man featured in Mad Men, the show set in a swanky New York advertising agency on Madison Avenue 50 years ago, is guilty of gross sexual harassment but neither they nor the abused women apparently think anything of it.
We must also recognise that many relatively weak, junior employees might justifiably feel or merely claim that they have had their careers blighted and personal lives destroyed as a result of what more senior colleagues will have regarded as little more than “a bit of drunken fun”.
That view will change completely if there is a subsequent accusation of rape, possibly years after the event, and the police are called in to investigate what might eventually be regarded by the courts as a criminal offence and professional bodies as a reason for exclusion.
In this context, it is time for all involved to take stock and for everybody in the profession to reconsider their own positions and those of their firms in the light of what threatens to become a difficult period of reflection and recrimination for many practices and the profession as a whole.
Recognising that the opinions of a man who has been a partner in various firms of accountants for the last two decades might not present a full picture, this piece was written with the assistance of two friends who are young and female. While they have now reached relatively senior positions in the profession, they retain a full understanding of how discrimination and harassment can operate.
They also recognise the difficulties junior employees face when trying to decide on appropriate action when they believe that they have been wronged by those who potentially have the ability to end their careers overnight.
This article is not written from the perspective of a qualified lawyer, but sets out to help all involved recognise and avoid what might be regarded as harassment, covering not only the obvious but also marginal situations are best avoided.
Code of behaviours
At the moment, many employers may be struggling to come to terms with this not necessarily particularly brave new world and it is helpful that Vicky Featherstone and the Royal Court Theatre in London have developed a comprehensive Industry Code of Behaviour to Prevent Sexual Harassment and Abuses of Power.
While the document is primarily directed towards those working in the theatre, most of the general principles will be of wider application and could be a good starting point for HR departments (in many cases the partners) in accountancy practices.
In the fullness of time, one hopes that the various professional bodies will prepare their own guidance since this is a potentially explosive topic that is now never going to go away.