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  • International Workplace
  • 24 October 2017
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Weinstein case highlights HR’s duty to all employees, not just those in power

Over the last few weeks, it has been near impossible to avoid hearing stories in the news from the dozens of actresses who have come forward to raise their allegations against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein. Whilst the accusations and the period they relate to are disconcerting, of greater concern is the potential cover-up that has taken place. 

Reports are emerging that his employer, The Weinstein Company, included a clause in his contract which meant they could not fire him for sexual harassment claims, as long as any settlements were made from Weinstein’s own pocket, with a sliding scale of fines (of up to $1m) for the number of offences. The size of these fines may be seen as a poor deterrent to someone with an estimated net worth between $240m and $300m. As a result, questions are being asked about the complicity and knowledge his employer had of the alleged offences.  It has since been announced that the company is now in talks to sell the business. 

Most of us might think that the glamorous world of Hollywood is far removed from the everyday experience of most workplaces, but the concerns raised by the Weinstein case do have some implications for HR departments of all shapes and sizes. 

The allegations against Weinstein span nearly two decades, with many suggesting this is a direct result of his status as one of the most powerful men in the film industry. How many actresses or their agents would risk their own careers to highlight accusations of sexual harassment against someone in a position of such power and authority? For HR departments, this highlights one issue individuals may face when encountering sexual harassment at work where there is someone in power who may not have a direct employment relationship with the person they are harassing. Just who do you turn to raise concerns? Do you have a separate policy for self-employed contractors to rely on? 

Again, for employers and HR departments, the learning is clear: they must remain mindful of their own legal obligations, especially in relation to the Equality Act 2010. Knowing about, but not acting upon, breaches of equality legislation can have severe consequences, and employers have a duty of care in respect of all employees, not just the senior team or the biggest earners.

These allegations, and the suggested industry-wide cover-up, demonstrate an underlying ethos that bad behaviour is simply accepted if the person is hugely influential. All organisations need to carefully inspect their culture, values and behaviour to avoid an ethos of mistreatment or manipulation. Making it absolutely clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, regardless of how senior the individual is, will help to set standards of behaviour and ensure employees understand that this sort of behaviour is not supported by their employer.

Employers can also reinforce this by ensuring a trusted, safe place to go to report any concerns confidentially, and by making it a priority to follow up on any allegations. The worst thing an employer can do following an employee raising sexual harassment claims is to sit back and do nothing, as this breaks any trust or confidence that the employee holds in their employer. Making equality and diversity training part of your induction or training programme for all employees is another way to prevent this happening, and ensuring everyone is aware of company’s policy and processes.

Unfortunately, it can sometimes be difficult to prove sexual harassment claims, but the employer is only expected to act on the basis that they reasonably believe that the behaviour took place. If it becomes clear that one individual is the subject of repeated allegations raised against them, the employer needs to respond suitably and swiftly to manage it.

As we have seen in the Weinstein case, there are reports that some actors were paid to keep their silence after attempting to speak out, whereas Weinstein continued working and, allegedly, harassing. Whilst it isn’t uncommon to include confidentiality and non-disclosure clauses in settlement agreements, it would not be appropriate for an employee to pay colleagues for their silence. If the person involved is also a director, it would be a breach of their duties under the Companies Act to do this and not report their own failings. 

Some people will always try to take advantage of their powerful position. Developing a culture where there are no repercussions for reporting bad behaviour, and a recognition that all staff are valued will help to avoid and manage these situations effectively. 

 

Keziah Harding is a HR Consultant for HR Advise Me, part of the Loch Associates Group.  To contact Keziah, email ask@hradvise.me or call 01892 578211, or visit www.hradvise.me for more information.