As the festive season is upon us HR departments are holding their collective breath in the hope that the combination of the Christmas party and alcohol does not cause any allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour to arise. Lloyds's of London, PwC and KPMG have all taken steps to remove or control the level of alcohol consumed during the working day or Christmas party.
Lloyd's of London have reinforced the ban on day time alcohol following a survey carried out by the Banking Standards Board on behalf of Lloyd's which attracted 6,000 respondents, of which 8% (500 people) said that they had seen some form of sexual harassment in the last year, while 22 per cent said they had witnessed people in their organisation turn a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour. John Neal, the chief executive of the 331-year-old institution, commented that he wished the insurance section would put an end to its reputation as one the City's last bastions for boozy lunches. Lloyd's initial attempt to control the booze culture applied to its own employees only, whereas the organisation is composed of thousands more people who hold the status of independent operators with around 40,000 people who have access to the building, which Lloyd's now wants to comply with the daytime alcohol ban.
PwC has announced that only alcohol provided by its in-house catering team at designated events will be permitted to be consumed on its premises. This comes in the wake of the dismissal of five PwC partners last year for reasons including harassment. PwC is not the only big four firm that has suffered the same problem of high ranking staff being accused of improper alcohol-fuelled behaviour. Deloitte and EY have also had their fair share of problems. KPMG, in an attempt to head off any risks posed by the Christmas party and alcohol concerns, announced that they would be appointing sober chaperones in an attempt to ensure the safety of all concerned. However, the PwC staff was largely unimpressed and dubbed the chaperones Prosecco police.
Giambrone's employment team in the London office headed by Sara Perischine, believe that the problem arises due to two main factors, alcohol and the disparate status of the staff members involved which can bring to bear undue pressure on the more junior individual. A clear example is the case involving the former managing partner of Baker McKenzie, Gary Senior, in 2012 when there was an incident involving Mr Senior and a female associate who was only six months qualified. Mr Senior was with a group of Baker McKenzie lawyers who were invited back to Mr Senior's hotel room following a night of drinking. Mr Senior asked the newly qualified associate to remain behind when the other staff members left his room at approximately 3.00 am, whereupon he paid her an inappropriate compliment and kissed her in "an attempt to initiate intimate activity" and then tried to embrace her, despite the fact that she had made quite clear his attentions were unwanted and inappropriate.
Following the incident, Mr Senior is alleged to have used his seniority to suppress the matter and it was hushed up and the young associate left with a pay-off and a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Mr Senior was promoted and no mention of his name reached the ears of the wider staff at Baker McKenzie due to his efforts to keep his name under wraps.
Fast forward and Baker McKenzie now finds itself in trouble with the SRA who has referred the matter it to Solicitors' Disciplinary Tribunal, furthermore the ripples in this particular pond have caught Tom Cassels and Martin Blackburn, both former senior lawyers of Baker McKenzie, who, at the time, are alleged to have collaborated with Mr Senior to hush up the matter rather than report the incident to the SRA as they should have done. Baker McKenzie is now trying to repair the damage caused by assuring all who will listen that they know their conduct fell below expected levels when investigating Mr Senior and should never have happened.
Sara commented "regardless of how unpalatable a situation is in these circumstances and regardless of the seniority of the any of the parties involved, it is always better to face the situation head-on, as any attempt to undermine an investigation or get a person of the hook will only blow up in the organisation's face if it becomes public knowledge and the reputational damage can last a very long time". The cost to a business, should an issue arise, can be quite significant and have a considerable impact on an organisation; particularly if an employee feels so sufficiently aggrieved that they take the matter to the Employment Tribunal. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the matter the costs will rise - the time spent by the HR department attempting to deal with the matter prior to a tribunal appearance, legal advice costs if the matter does get as far as the tribunal, the time spent out of the office attending the tribunal by the HR department, the witnesses, the two or more opposing employees, the supporting members of staff and possible legal representation. The follow-on costs are often overlooked, it is rare for all the employees concerned to return to "business as usual" after such a situation, therefore, the business then faces having to recruit and train replacement staff. Also, any upset in the workplace has a disruptive unsettling influence.
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