‘Handsy’ colleagues and ‘boozy’ events: Where is the line?

The legal sector is changing. 100 years on from Carrie Morrison’s qualification as the first female solicitor, women now make up 53% of practising solicitors and 69% of applicants to law schools. The profession is made up of different races, religions, ages, genders, sexes; it welcomes the disabled and champions the neurodiverse.

However, as is the case in other professions, archaic behaviours and practices remain. One need only look at the recent news about the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to see how such conduct persists.

The comment that crosses the line; the sordid wandering eyes; the assault brushed off as handsiness.

This behaviour is prevalent across the legal sector. Today’s Conveyancer and Today’s Wills and Probate surveyed 142 conveyancers and 55 private client practitioners on LinkedIn with the question: “Have you experienced any conduct in the office or at a legal event that has made you feel uncomfortable/crossed the line?”

(Source: Today’s Media)

Overall, for the conveyancing sector, 81 (57%) people answered “yes” and 61 (43%) people answered “no”. The figures from the conveyancing sector revealed that 60 women answered yes compared to 21 men answering that they have experienced something of that nature. 34 women answered no in comparison to 27 men.

The results for the private client sector revealed that 30 (55%) people answered yes and 25 (45%) people responded with no. Amongst the people that answered with yes, 27 of those were women whilst only three were men. 11 women said no as well as 14 men.

The feeling from many is that it is high time the line is drawn; that the legal sector must call out this behaviour and lead by example through its collective conduct for other professions to follow.

The International Bar Association’s Legal Policy and Research Unit’s international survey was conducted in 2018 and received responses from 6,980 members of the profession from across 135 different countries. The survey revealed that half of the women respondents have experienced bullying. For men, it’s one in three. A third of the women respondents have been sexually harassed in the workplace. For men, it’s one in 14.

One recommendation is to “implement and revise policies and standards’ regarding bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace”. The report also found that “only one in five legal workplaces educate their staff to prevent and properly respond to such incidents, and while over half of legal workplaces have policies, these are not sufficiently effective”.

Is there a “drinking culture” at legal events?

One common statement evident across the legal sector is that being intoxicated is often used as an excuse for any type of harassment. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) published sexual misconduct guidance in September last year that stated:

 “Being intoxicated is often raised as a defence to allegations of sexual misconduct. Depending on the context intoxication could aggravate or mitigate the behaviour. It is never a defence to an allegation.”

“To suggest that alcohol is the root cause of sexual harassment and assault at these events is wholly inappropriate,” said Jade Gani, CEO & Head of Private Client at Circe Law Ltd. “It deflects from the real issue at hand – and that is that we live in a society that prioritises the comfort of the offender rather the safety of the victim.”

To eliminate this behaviour at legal events and in the office, “managers need to keep their finger on the pulse with the realities of the working environment in their firms,” said Jade. She added:

“If they do, they will be able to spot and identify problematic behaviours before they escalate and prevent assaults from occurring. If staff see that management is taking a keen interest in the culture of the firm, they will be more inclined to voice their early concerns.

The onus here isn’t on the employee to change, but for the senior management to take the matter more seriously and commit to change with their time and finances. Consistent and frequent education is key to prevention: swift and decisive action against a perpetrator is essential after the event.”

How can firms safeguard their staff?

Many firms are tackling harassment in the workplace to create a safe environment for their employees. Jodie Hill, a member of The Law Society’s employment law committee and founder of Thrive Law, said:

“We encourage junior members of staff to ‘buddy’ in any such events so that they can feel less at risk in those environments[…]

It is important to have female role models in senior roles too. It’s much harder for women to seek help when the majority (or as if often the case, entire) of the leadership team are male.”

Thrive Law have hosted Women’s Safety in the Workplace training sessions – “which seeks to highlight those concerns across a range of companies, and presents different initiatives which can be put in place to support female employees,” said Jodie. “We are always looking at ways to improve women’s safety[…]”

More on this, Jade stated that firms should “take a victim approach to support anyone who suffers from an assault or harassment – placing their needs and safety as the top priority.” She added:

“But it shouldn’t even get that far; firms should be taking concerns of their staff seriously, never downgrading what a person might be feeling or expressing. This means you have to create an environment in which victims feel safe and supported to air concerns.

‘If you see or hear something, say something’ is a good philosophy to start with and this should be continuously encouraged amongst staff, and put in practice visibly by senior management.”

Natalie Moore, Director at Aconveyancing, added that “enforcing a no-tolerance stance on inappropriate behaviours is essential, with policies to support this.” She continued:

“Every workplace should have an independent and confidential route to raise a grievance, which is widely and regularly communicated as well as being clearly set out in out in the staff handbook.

Most crucially, concerns should never be dismissed. At a personal level, staff have the right to be heard and trusted and at a professional level, inappropriate behaviours have the potential to ruin a business’ reputation.”

“I don’t want to be the handbag-waving woman saying ‘don’t call me beautiful’, it’s okay to say you look great. But there’s a difference between being kind and being seedy. We know when someone is looking at our face versus our bodies,” said Clare Yates, founder of CY Training Works:

“We are not a sport. We are not a challenge. We are females and colleagues.”

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