Parissa Torabi, associate at law firm Fox Williams, explains the precautions fashion retail leaders must take to ensure their is no harassment hidden in their organisations
Sexual harassment allegations are nothing new in fashion, but before the #MeToo movement, many victims felt unable to raise concerns for fear of placing their careers at risk.
Those who spoke out were typically paid off and gagged under non-disclosure agreements – a standard approach in all industries.
Victims are now more likely to challenge inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, assisted by a proliferation of online activist tools that survey staff anonymously. Non-disclosure agreements are also coming under scrutiny by government and regulators. This is, of course, a positive development, but it means CEOs must take even greater care to ensure there is no such culture in their organisations.
The law defines sexual harassment as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating the victim’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the victim”. It can be a single or a series of acts.
Harassment allegations can result in serious reputational and financial damage, both for the alleged perpetrator and for the brand. Ted Baker’s shares fell by as much as 25% in the days following the allegations against founder Ray Kelvin surfaced, and it has now launched an independent investigation.
A successful harassment claim can result in unlimited compensation, as well as an additional award up to £42,900 for injury to feelings.
Fashion CEOs must take this opportunity to review their working practices and cultures, and ensure all employees are treated fairly and with respect.
Top tips to set the right culture
- Provide appropriate staff training on harassment in the workplace.
- Ensure policies and procedures on dignity at work, equality and diversity, and whistleblowing are up to date, emphasised and followed. Set the business’s culture from the top.
- Encourage employees to report any issues to management.
- Take any sexual harassment complaint seriously. Maintain confidentiality. Involve HR immediately and seek specialist legal advice.
- Carry out a fair, robust and impartial investigation into any allegations. Do not pre-judge the outcome. Do not rush to suspend the alleged perpetrator. Do not rush to judgement and assume the allegations are true: employers owe duties to the alleged perpetrator as much as to the alleged victim.
- If the investigation concludes that disciplinary proceedings are appropriate, carry out a robust disciplinary process before imposing any disciplinary sanction and consider carefully whether, in light of all of the findings the chosen sanction is appropriate.
- Be careful not to subject the alleged victim to any detriment as a result of him/her making a sexual harassment allegation, even if that allegation is not upheld: a badly-handled reaction to an allegation can create a victimisation claim even where a claim for sexual harassment does not arise.