Christine Young, Partner and Jemima Coleman, professional support lawyer|Herbert Smith Freehills

The International Bar Association report Us Too?, launched in May 2019, highlighted widespread bullying and sexual harassment in legal workplaces.

“For the first time at a global level, this research provides quantitative confirmation that bullying and sexual harassment are endemic in the legal profession,” stated the IBA president. The report involved 6,980 respondents, from 135 countries, across law firms, in-house, barristers’ chambers, judiciary and government. It reported that bullying is rife in legal workplaces, affecting one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents. Bullying and harassment also impact on retention rates: employees leave organisations following these negative experiences.

Surprisingly, the report found policies and training don’t appear to be having the desired impact globally. Respondents at workplaces with policies and training are just as likely to be bullied or harassed as those at workplaces without. In the UK, however, this was not the case: “Legal workplaces in the UK have been early adopters of anti-bullying and sexual harassment policies, with 79% of respondents indicating their workplaces had these policies in place (53% globally).” In addition: “British legal professionals at workplaces with policies in place experience considerably less bullying.

Operate policies in a timely manner so staff can see those who raise concerns are treated with respect and their concerns are addressed

There is also a link between workplaces running training and less bullying and sexual harassment occurring.” This is heartening, and chimes with our experience advising clients, from FTSE 100 companies to professional services firms, asset managers and more: those organisations that put in place clear policies and invest in training, have more positive workplace cultures, supporting dignity at work.

The report sets out a number of recommendations in addition to revising and implementing policies and standards, including gathering data with an end to improving transparency, exploring flexible reporting models and offering regular, customised training.

But what do you need for effective training to prevent bullying and sexual harassment?

Senior leadership has an important role to play in setting the right tone and culture of the organisation, but commitment must flow down. Training is a powerful tool for engaging staff in the role they have to play in maintaining a company’s values. Involving employees in the drafting process can heighten sense of shared ownership. Also, ensure good communications on the company intranet, or through management briefings, to make people aware of the ways they can raise issues. And use policies as a tool to educate staff and management about impacts to drive behavioural change in the workplace. It is important that people understand the seriousness, and for them to moderate their behaviour as necessary. It is well known that bullying and sexual harassment can impact mental health.

Finally, operate policies in a timely manner so staff can see those who raise concerns are treated with respect and their concerns are addressed. It’s important that the policies are seen to be applied and appropriate action taken. Keep policies under review so they can evolve, and ensure tailored training is run regularly, championed by leadership.

This article can be found in Briefing’s October edition: Buying signals


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