How To Deal With Harassment In Law Firms
A shocking number of women have either been a victim of, or witness to, sexual harassment while working in law firms. It's an issue that is often in the spotlight, but that doesn't mean that it is easy for those affected to speak up.
Recently, a survey of 110 legal professionals conducted by Legal Week found that 54% of female respondents and 39% of male respondents had seen inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. That's a huge amount, and one that shows a clear need for action on multiple levels to stop lives, careers, and also the reputations of otherwise excellent law firms being destroyed by complacency in the face of unacceptable conduct.
Sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour from both male and female colleagues is distressingly commonplace, but another important factor is that these cases often involve a senior figure targeting a junior.
It can be difficult for those in a lower position within a firm to speak out against someone with high standing and years' worth of reputation. For a start, there is the fear of not being believed, but also the more insidious worry that they will be seen as expendable compared to the accused. Faced with these pressures and concerns, it can be difficult to make a complaint. This fear is what the culture surrounding harassment in law firms thrives on, enabling and emboldening those whose behaviour has no place in a modern professional environment.
What are the issues
Law firms ultimately need to consider the type of reputation they want to cultivate as an employer. Failing to act on reports of harassment, or discriminating against the wronged party in favour of a senior member of staff can ultimately lead to irreparable damage to a firm's reputation, no matter how venerable it is, or how much good work it does for clients.
Common forms of harassment and discrimination
Harassment can take many forms, here are some of the most commonly experienced:
- Inappropriate touching and assault
- Frequent communication of a personal nature through professional portals (email, work phone, instant messenger etc.)
- Comments made in the workplace or to clients
- Sexist or belittling language
- Being unsupported or dismissed when speaking up following a colleague or client's behaviour
Does harassment occur in both small and large law firms?
Sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour has been recorded in legal companies of all sizes. While the likelihood of encountering an issue is relative to the size of the firm (52per cent at large law firms and 40-42per cent at small to medium-sized concerns), the seriousness is not diminished.
It is the responsibility of your employer to have processes in place to allow you to make a complaint safely, and with the knowledge that you will be taken seriously and that there will be proportional consequences for offending party.
How should individuals, and companies, react to reports of inappropriate behaviour?
As it stands, 74per cent of sexual harassment cases go unreported to supervisors, and 71per cent of those that are escalated find the response to be insufficient. Change is sorely needed, in both the action taken and the culture in law firms on a whole.
That being said, you should try official channels first if you face or witness unacceptable behaviour in your workplace. Firstly, tell the offending colleague/client that you object to their conduct and that you will report them if they do not apologise and change their behaviour. In some cases, this may be enough.
If you need to escalate the complaint, then speak to your line manager or head of HR. Hopefully they will be the exception to the stories that are emerging all too often, and will be supportive and decisive. If you face opposition or a lack of action, however, then calling the Safecall whistleblowing service will help you to get the fair treatment you deserve.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.