The #metoo Thunderstorm

The emergence of the #metoo campaign has been a significant milestone in the fight for equality. Though as the rolling thunder that is the global #metoo campaign continues to hit more high-profile companies and individuals, the question I have is will the momentum brought on by #metoo be enough to change the underlying toxic workplace cultures that exhibit these similar behaviours?

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen more senior leaders step down or be suspended, with the recent high-profile departures at Herbert Smith Freehills in Australia, and a mass exodus of Nike executives departing in the US.  Before HSF and Nike, we’d already seen serious allegations of sexual misconduct emerge against senior partners of both EY and KPMG in Australia as the #metoo thunderstorm rolled through the big accounting and consulting firms.

In an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, both HSF and Nike have made public statements about not tolerating behaviour that is against their internal policies and that do not mirror their core values. In Nike’s published memo the CEO said they will conduct a review of HR systems, encourage more employees to report misbehaviour and invest more in diversity efforts.

In all of the discussions in the aftermath, I’ve mostly heard companies similarly say they will focus on improving internal processes for handling complaints and encourage more people to feel safe to come forward and report inappropriate behaviour in a timely way.  However, I don’t believe this alone is enough to make a significant change.  In an International Women’s Day address at the Australian National University, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins optimistically said that she hopes that #metoo marks the beginning of the end of a global culture which permits both sexual harassment to occur and prevents victims from speaking out in workplaces.

But can we really permanently change culture for the better if we don’t face up to the potentially ugly, truth revealing moment of asking WHY?  Why have these toxic workplace cultures been able to thrive for decades across respected industries such as law, accounting, media and television?  If the #metoo momentum fails to generate a deep, honest and tough conversation about the reality of the pervasive culture —and not just the individuals caught in the spotlight — then my fear is that the momentum will not lead to real change and its main victory will have been creating a time for powerful individual stories to be shared, leading to the worst offenders being ousted; but the underlying dominant culture will not substantially change for the better.

Why do these toxic workplace cultures still exist in the modern world?

It’s simple, there’s a common element in all of these stories.  These workplace cultures are built on what I call the three P’s :

  • Position
  • Power
  • Profit
    (and dare I say there’s a 4th P that’s just as masculine, somewhat phallic and also a factor in all of the #metoo stories…)

Take Mr Paradise of Herbert Smith Freehills for example.; even the legal fraternity themselves referred to him as a ‘powerful law partner’.  The Lawyers Weekly (Coade; Doraisamy, 2018) said: “Mr Paradise was a prominent partner based in the Sydney office of HSF, leading teams of lawyers working on mega deals worth into the billions”.  Most organisations do not willingly get rid of powerful people who work on deals worth billions of dollars, irrespective of how bad their behaviour is— as can be seen from the fact that the first complaints emerged about Mr Paradise seven years ago.  Nevertheless, he remained in the firm and was still recognised across the whole legal industry as a powerful partner.

I believe it is little coincidence that the industries that are now being exposed by #metoo complaints are ones in which the 3 P’s have been most prevalent for decades.  Accounting and consulting, law, banking, politics, film and television, have all traditionally been bastions of position, power and profit.

Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Don Burke, Barnaby Joyce, senior partners across legal and accounting firms, and the senior executives at Nike, all had the 3 P’s in common; they held a position of senior leadership or authority within their industry and benefitted from an untouchability that comes with operating at the top of a hierarchy in a big-name organisation.  They had power that had manifested itself in an ability to bury undesirable stories that would have seen more junior players terminated and they’ve enjoyed decades of impunity for their inappropriate actions.  They operate in industries that have traditionally valued profit and power over people. If you’re earning the company big dollars or big fame, little indiscretions seem to go away (as do the junior staff hurt by the incidents).

Whilst it is gratifying to finally see karma have its day and reveal toxic individuals and their impact on the lives of others, the risk is that individual perpetrators are being named for the terrible things that they have done over many years.  Don’t get me wrong, yes, they are individually culpable but why did they not get called to justice many years ago?  Is it because the workplace culture at the time did not actually find the behaviour that reprehensible?  In a world where position, power and profit dominate, a little bit of slap and tickle is often tolerated, swept under the carpet or in worst cases even celebrated —as in the case of trips to the strip club to celebrate a successful deal as we saw in the revelations about the toxic culture in the Global Markets division of ANZ.  Innocent victims are usually too junior, too intimidated or powerless to do anything about it; or at the very least anyone who doesn’t like the culture and the behaviour is usually called a wowser or a party-pooper.


My own #metoo moment

Flash back to the late 1990’s.  I’m 20-something and nervously attending my very first job interview which was at a mid-sized respectable (or not?) law firm in Canberra.  I’m proudly wearing my new navy suit and crisp white shirt, hoping to impress the interview panel and start my legal career at this firm. I can’t wait to finally put into practice all the concepts of justice, equality, fairness and human dignity I had been studying at law school.  So, you can imagine my shock when the senior partner interviewing asks me “Why the F*uck should I hire a woman? You’re going to get knocked up and leave.”  I was too stunned and too young to respond with anything more retaliatory than “I don’t intend to have children for some time.”  The rest of the interview was a train wreck as you can imagine.  But the harassment didn’t stop with me; my good friend was the next candidate and the same (male) partner asked her what contraception she was using and was she sure it was reliable enough.

Throughout my job interview the Head of HR sat primly besides the senior partner, neatly taking notes and she didn’t say a word.  Presumably the other partners of this firm thought that the senior partner was the best person for the job of interviewing Graduates.  If they knew what he was like they certainly didn’t stop him.  He wasn’t alone in the room when he said these things, he was accompanied by a so-called expert in workplace behaviour, the HR manager, and she didn’t do anything.  Yes, he was a vile pig of a man whose behaviour guaranteed that no female ever had a chance of getting a job at that firm, but he was enabled and encouraged by that workplace culture. It would have made absolutely no difference if I spoke up at the time.  All that would have happened is that my young and unknown name would have been black-listed as a trouble maker, preventing me from ever getting a graduate job in Canberra, so I slunk off in my navy-blue suit to the next interview.

The high price of speaking up

Over the decades before #metoo there were people who tried to speak up.  But the victims are nearly always junior, young and female.  They do not have a senior position or any power. They are not part of the profit epi-centre.  So usually the whistle-blowers just quietly disappear.  Best case they walked away with a cheque to keep them quiet; more often just gave up the fight and they found another job; or worst case, if they spoke up usually they became the enemy and were vilified in the worst possible way.  Remember what happened to Amy Taeuber at Channel 7 when she made a sexual harassment complaint against a senior male producer in Adelaide?  Amy and her freelance sister were both sacked.

The powerful movement generated by the #metoo campaign has now encouraged a critical mass of women to speak up globally and reveal the truth of the extent of sexual harassment and discrimination that women have endured for years.  However, I believe that significant change cannot occur if the #metoo campaign does not lead to a scrutiny of underlying toxic workplace cultures and all the factors that enabled the individuals to get away with their behaviour for years. We should not accept that it is enough for organisations to conveniently hang out one or two of its worst individuals who have been caught out in these allegations and say that they will do better from now on.  Yes, the individuals did the wrong thing, but at the time that they did it who else knew and who else did nothing?  The complicit, quiet participants are just as culpable, not only as individuals but collectively.  Isn’t the silent HR Manager in my graduate interview just as guilty as the partner who made the awful comments?

It is the toxic workplace cultures that have allowed—even encouraged— obnoxious behaviour to go unchecked that are the real enduring problem.  Unless we scrutinise the culture and change those cultures forever, we may just see an ever-growing series of high powered heads being sacrificed on stakes in response to #metoo, but no real change.  It is not enough for companies like Herbert Smith Freehills and Nike to say that they are going to review their policies and hope that more people have the courage to speak up if in the future.

In the US, the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund was established to give victims an avenue to take action that they couldn’t otherwise afford.  The Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund now has more than 2000 potential clients, 600 lawyers signed up to help and US$21.7 million raised so far via a Go Fund Me Page.  The money will be used to provide legal and PR advice and representation to victims of workplace harassment in the US.  Through legal action the Fund hopes to change the barriers to true gender equality in the workplace.

Changing toxic workplace cultures for good

What are Australian companies doing to create real culture change?  If we seriously want to use the #metoo momentum to improve workplaces, companies need to start with some very uncomfortable discussions, research and reflection to identify what behaviours are still alive and well in their workplaces.  Nike is feeling the heat of this exercise right now. A group of women in Nike’s headquarters quietly surveyed other females to find out the extent of sexual harassment and discrimination across the organisation. The survey revealed a deeply embedded culture that was demeaning to women including career path blockages, disgusting jokes and language, and ignored complaints to HR.

 “If we seriously want to use the #metoo momentum to improve workplaces, companies need to start with some very uncomfortable discussions, research and reflection to identify what behaviours are still alive and well in their workplaces.”

In Australia we are witnessing the fallout from the Banking Royal Commission with iconic organisations such as AMP and CBA, and senior leaders across a number of financial institutions.  The common factor between the findings of the Royal Commission and #metoo is that the corporate cultures in the organisations before the Royal Commission have been damned for allowing significant breaches to occur over decades.  Power and profit have blinded those in positions of leadership and accountability to what is morally right.  The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) found in its Inquiry into CBA that “CBA’s continued financial success dulled the senses of the institution.” APRA directly attributed CBA’s failings to its culture: “In the Panel’s view, cultural factors lie at the heart of these shortcomings”, and went on to describe a ‘widespread sense of complacency’ that has run from the top down.  You can see how a corporate culture that overlooks inappropriate —but highly profitable— behaviour from a corporate risk and governance perspective may also overlook inappropriate workplace behaviour amongst its staff members.

Time to put People first

Change will be achieved when organisations finally put people above position, power and profit.  Employees, customers and the community are all saying that they’ve had enough of being treated badly.  A high price is now being paid by individuals and organisations who failed to take seriously allegations of inappropriate behaviour in both the #metoo campaign and before the Banking Royal Commission.

There’s no silver bullet.  It can take a long time to change a dominant workplace culture, but the catalyst for change can come from a crisis or from a real and genuine commitment to transform your workplace.  If you are an employer and you do not want to read about the real culture that exists in your workplace on social media I suggest it’s time to take proactive action.

Companies should be strategically addressing their workplace culture, starting by deeply analysing the current state including their true organisational values and behaviours plus the real state of gender equality and inclusion, and then developing an action plan for creating a modern workplace that delivers exceptional employee and customer experience. 

In our experience, too many companies have had a knee jerk reaction to gender diversity. Expensive programs and tick-a-box diversity activities have been implemented without an in-depth qualitative and quantitative understanding of their ‘real’ company values (not the values that are printed in the annual report and look like everyone else’s); meaning poor behaviours continue to be rewarded and revered. Some companies have set gender targets to ensure they are successfully met and that resistance to targets doesn’t lead to more backlash. Achieving aspirational targets in an inclusive culture must be accompanied by a real understanding of how progression actually occurs in your organisation’s culture and taking action to counteract gender barriers by cultivating sponsorship and strategic alliances. 

Our experts at A-HA have worked closely with many organisations to create inclusive workplace cultures that deliver exceptional employee and customer experiences. If you’d like to have a chat about how we can help you ensure that you don’t have a toxic workplace culture drop us a line.












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