Blogs / 10 Oct 2023 5 min

Is the next sexual harassment scandal coming to a boardroom near you?

By Sharon Peake, Shape Talent Founder & CEO

Apparently, men are nervous about working with or mentoring women, for fear of harassment claims. That’s according to John Allan, former Chair of Tesco and Barratt Developments, who stood down from both boards earlier this year following allegations of sexual harassment by four women1.

In the last year we’ve seen numerous corporate scandals around sexual harassment and impropriety. The business lobby group, CBI was brought to its knees this year after serious allegations of harassment and rape emerged from several women. It is now facing merger talks to stave off collapse as member organisations left in droves2.

Earlier this year investment banking giant Goldman Sachs settled a $215m class action lawsuit in the US from over 2,800 women that alleged sexual discrimination and harassment3. A “boys club” culture, systemic lower pay for women, and a tolerance of sexual harassment were all alleged in the lawsuit.

The UK’s National Grid were last month sued for £360,000 after a woman successfully brought a claim involving repeated sexual harassment by her manager4. In the last few months, we’ve also seen equally high-profile cases play out in other fields such as sport, medicine and entertainment.

Such incidents can be career ending for the individual, harm an organisation’s reputation and brand and result in costly lawsuits. It is critical that the board – whose role includes oversight of corporate culture and risk management – sets a strong and clear tone from the top and that the CEO and Executive Committee follow suit.

So what do boards and ExCos need to do to ensure sexual harassment is not happening on their watch?

3 things boards must do:

  1. Ensure a clear policy and response plan with board members walking the talk. The board must have a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment. The Chair and board members should be vocal on this, ensuring that the CEO and Executive Committee are aligned with the board’s position and actively walk the talk. The board should have a clear plan, including an emergency succession plan, in the event that a board or ExCo member is the subject of sexual harassment allegations.
  2. Ensure clear accountabilities. This includes having a board committee or sub-committee, such as an Ethics Committee, devoted to ethics and culture issues. It also means ensuring there is a dedicated executive responsible for ensuring a healthy workplace culture. Ordinarily this will be a Chief People Officer, who should be reporting on sexual harassment cases to the committee.
  1. Actively work to address the gender balance of the board itself. Very few European boards are gender balanced yet having more women (and other forms of diverse representation) on the board will ensure diverse perspectives and help hold company insiders to account.

4 things ExCos must do:

  1. Have a clear policy and mechanisms to address harassment claims. It is critical that these are well understood by HR and line leaders, with a clear directive on exactly how to respond if a case is raised. Similarly, the policy and process must be well-communicated to employees and easy to find so they know who to contact and what to do in the (hopefully unlikely) event they need to make a claim. In some companies this involves a dedicated whistleblowing line.
  2. Build a culture where harassment isn’t tolerated. How you respond to sexual harassment incidents tells employees everything they need to know about what constitutes acceptable behaviour in your organisation. Training line leaders to respond appropriately, and ensuring a high standard of behaviour of all leaders and employees is crucial.
  3. Build ExCo awareness and capability. A lack of training and awareness around sexual harassment and discrimination risks can result in ExCo members becoming nervous and cautious in their behaviour. It is crucial they are supported so that they fully understand the organisation’s policy, and their role in upholding it. In our work with ExCos we find a combination of group discussion and 1:1 support can be particularly helpful.
  4. Check-in with employees. One of the challenges with sexual harassment is that it is often under-reported. Consider the recent survey of UK surgeons that found that 30% of women had been sexually assaulted by a colleague and 90% of women and 81% of men had witnessed some form of sexual misconduct5. Many incidents simply don’t get reported. In addition to a whistleblowing line to report harassment, giving your employees a safe and anonymous way of sharing their perceptions on the culture around harassment can provide powerful feedback on the issues that may not be reported. In our Three Barriers Diagnostic Survey across multiple industries, we have found that one in five women (significantly more than the one in ten men) perceive that bullying and harassment is not dealt with appropriately at work.

If you’d like to discuss how Shape Talent can support you on this journey do  get in touch.

Sharon Peake is the Founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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