Jan Gooding: How we're going to end sexual harassment in adland
The latest timeTo campaign tackles bystanders
Jan Gooding looks at ways to make sexual harassment in the workplace easier to identify, challenge and stop
I am sure I was not the only one struck by the extraordinary conflation of events at the start of December. Just as the new Christmas executions for the #timeTo campaign to stop sexual harassment in the advertising industry broke, David Pemsel, most recently CEO of the Guardian, found himself at the centre of allegations of inappropriate texting with a junior member of staff.
A high price is paid
What a devastating end to a glittering career to find yourself the poster child of a high-profile sexual harassment allegation. A moment that affects everyone around you. Your partner, children, wider family, friends and former colleagues must surely all be reeling with the shock of such a public knock down. There is no doubt that stories like this have consequences for many more people than those at the centre of the storm. Including the victim.
There is no doubt there is still a problem
Most people who have seen the #timeTo campaign agree with the sentiment that ‘no-one should have to put up with sexual harassment’, and don’t simply dismiss it as ‘political correctness’.
It is also generally accepted that this problem is neither new, nor going away. Research conducted in 2019, within companies endorsing the #timeTo initiative, revealed that some 14% of female respondents aged 18 to 24 have already been sexually harassed in the few years they have spent working. In total 42%, from a sample of over 1,100 people from our industry, have either experienced and/or witnessed it. What a very depressing statistic.
It’s not difficult to spot sexual harassment
The #timeTo advertising campaign shows us a range of uncomfortable scenarios apparently drawn from real-life examples. The situations are commonplace and begin innocently enough, however as the harassment gradually worsens the ad challenges us to think about where we would draw the line.
The campaign acknowledges that both men and women can be subject to sexual harassment and, importantly, demonstrates that predatory behaviour is easily distinguished from everyday sociability.
Do we agree on what should happen next?
What #timeTo doesn’t address is what happens to those who do draw a line and speak up to object. Nor what the consequences should be for those who fail to draw it in the right place and fail to understand that their advances are unwelcome. Suddenly everyone gets a bit less clear. That is the messy bit. If we can all agree the line was crossed and someone was being sexually harassed what should happen next?
Yes, we need to change the tone and culture of our workplaces, but what should happen to the culprits who still haven’t got the message?
Could there be negative consequences for the victim?
People still believe that there is a risk to the reputation and future employment of the person who speaks up. Victims fear they will find themselves being judged unfairly, particularly if the perpetrator loses their job. Indeed, one of the objectives of the #timeTo campaign is to reinforce the fact that unless people have the courage to speak up, confident in the knowledge they will be listened to and that something will be done, it won’t stop.
People are still uneasy about the consequences
And yet, when we are confronted with a real example, particularly of someone we know and probably liked, it is not so easy to take on board the inevitable and serious consequences. In the anonymous context of an advertising scenario we are able to draw the line and condemn, but when we actually know the people involved it seems it is suddenly not so straightforward. Perhaps we are too used to putting up with how it has always been? So, we are taken aback when someone isn’t prepared to turn a blind eye and reports it.
Victims are often criticised
I have already heard people who have read the text messages allegedly sent between David Pemsel and his former employee (before they were taken down from The Sun online) say ‘but when she put two xx at the end of her text message, that was definitely egging him on’. How quickly victims can be made somehow culpable for what happened.
There are many who feel that being paid for the story makes the motivations of the victim suspect and vindictive. Others who say that if it happened a few years ago, it shouldn’t be brought up at a later date. The view being that if it was ‘that bad’, then surely it would have been reported at the time.
There is already a backlash
I have heard men say that it’s no longer safe to flirt with colleagues at work. That it is no longer possible to compliment a woman on how she looks. Some go as far as saying they are afraid to be alone with a woman in case they are subsequently accused of having said something or been inappropriate during their conversation.
Others are much angrier. One man told me that even when he sees a woman with a ‘Baby on Board’ badge on London Transport he won’t offer up his seat because ‘this #MeToo stuff has gone far too far’. Another that he feels emasculated because the ‘pendulum has swung too far’ and it’s ‘no longer possible to say anything without causing offence’.
This is a serious matter
Sexual harassment isn’t being tackled because it is offensive. The fact is that it is against the law. Everyone is protected from sexual harassment in the workplace whether they are one-off or ongoing incidents. This protection comes from both employment law and criminal law, depending on the circumstances involved.
According to ACAS ‘experiencing sexual harassment is one of the most difficult situations a person can face in the workplace. It effectively violates their dignity and creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment’.
They point out that something can still be considered sexual harassment even if the alleged harasser didn't mean for it to be. It also doesn't have to be intentionally directed at a specific person. That is why a zero-tolerance approach is so vital to stamping it out.
Is it forgivable if the advances are welcomes?
But what about relationships that don’t fall into the category of sexual harassment? Such as in the case of Steve Easterbrook, who was fired as CEO of McDonald’s after starting a relationship with an employee. Many people feel that private lives should be exactly that. If two consenting adults who work together have a relationship who are we to judge?
The difficulty with that argument is that McDonalds actually have a policy forbidding managers from having romantic relationships with subordinates. I am on a number of boards where people policies are regularly reviewed and updated to reflect best practice. Increasingly policies are being amended to go beyond expectations of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying but also to comment on work relationships and even the consumption of alcohol whilst on duty.
Co-workers are inevitably compromised
We are coming to understand more about the impact of power dynamics at work. Managers have the power to hire, fire, promote, demote, allocate work and its location, award pay rises and bonuses, grant holidays and overtime. The integrity with which they are perceived to operate is undermined if they are romantically involved with a member of staff. They have as much power to hold back, as advance, a subordinate’s career prospects.
The only way for an organisation to ensure that there is no conflict of interest is to ensure that no manager is compromised in the first place.
The decline of the office romance
Perhaps it is just as well that according to a report published by Stanford University in July 2019 the majority of people, nearly 40%, now meet their partners through the internet. According to their data, meeting through or as co-workers peaked in the 1980’s at 20% but has now fallen back to more less than 10%. People don’t meet in person anymore, they meet through an app.
All of this should make sexual harassment at work even easier to spot, call out and stop.
Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of BT, British Gas, Diageo, Unilever and Aviva. She is also the chair of both PAMCo and LGBT equality charity Stonewall, the president of the Market Research Society and a partner of Jericho Chambers. She writes for Mediatel each month.