Author: Jane Wheeler

I was very pleased to be asked recently by the newly-formed COCo (Clerks in Open Conversation, a group which is part of the Institute of Barristers Clerks) to speak about my practical experiences of advising clients – both companies and individuals – about sexual harassment at work.

1. Following that session, I spoke with a number of clerks and other staff within sets of Chambers to talk about their perspectives on this topic. Some interesting discussion points emerged:

2. Despite the differences on the face of it between the film industry (where sexual harassment allegations have been very public) and a barristers’ Chambers, some of the same ingredients apply: there is an unusual dynamic, a hierarchy, and vulnerable, junior, individuals who are dependent on senior, more influential, figures for sponsorship, mentorship and career progression.

3. We discussed how important it was to get senior figures on board to promote a culture of openness and transparency at all levels. Like other important issues in the workplace (such as agile working) it is key that addressing sexual harassment is not just an HR initiative but involves an organisational-wide attitude change to drive positive behaviour.

4. Surprise was expressed at how long it has taken to get to the point of recognising that sexual harassment in the workplace is very real for many people – both men and women. Over the past 24 months, there has been a real focus on wellbeing at the Bar. Addressing issues of sexual harassment is another aspect of creating a safe and secure environment to promote mental wellbeing.

5. Our discussion made me question the advice that I sometimes give to clients that they need to resolve their own employment issues and not be concerned about making a difference to other individuals in their workplace. The view expressed by some of those I spoke to was that sexual harassment in the workplace is a collective responsibility to address. There is an automatic assumption that the victim is responsible for making a report, but witnesses who have experienced unacceptable behaviour need to speak up too. If that happens, this can change the power balance.

6. Our discussion made me reflect on whether some of the situations that I have advised on over the past 14 years would have the same outcome today. I recall advising a senior partner at a well-known company on allegations that he had sexually harassed a member of staff. The partner kept his job and a detailed protocol was drawn up that regulated his behaviour with other staff. Would he have kept his job today, in the current zero-tolerance climate?

7. The conversation also brought home that the current system for individuals to obtain an appropriate remedy for sexual harassment at work is not fit for purpose. There is the length of time taken for individuals to get redress (it can take several months to get to tribunal), the cost of seeking legal advice to take a claim to the employment tribunal, as well as the very short time limits in discrimination cases (three months from the event taking place): this can often preclude an individual from seeking a remedy if it takes them a number of months to develop the courage to raise concerns about harassment. In addition, the employment tribunals no longer have the power to look more broadly at an organisation that has done little to prevent harassment taking place and impose measures to address this – so the root cause of the problem in a workplace is not being dealt with. Will Government introduce more swift and effective remedies for those experiencing sexual harassment? What about an ombudsman/mediator that can look at issues impartially and resolve them far more quickly, less publicly and at less expense than the employment tribunals?

What do you think?