Sylvia Sage: What should HR teams learn from Lloyd’s of London’s sexual harassment accusations?

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Sylvia Sage: What should HR teams learn from Lloyd’s of London’s sexual harassment accusations?

Lloyd’s of London has come under fire following reports of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

These complaints by staff at the world’s biggest and oldest insurance market are a stark reminder to all businesses that the male-dominated macho culture of the past is no longer acceptable.

An independent survey at Lloyd’s found that 8 per cent of respondents – about 480 people – had either suffered or observed sexual harassment in the past 12 months and that the [work] “experience of women is much less positive than it is for men”.

The research was commissioned following a string of complaints from women at the insurance market earlier in the year, with accusations ranging from inappropriate remarks to physical assault.

This highlights the ongoing problem of discrimination amid the “boys’ club” culture at Lloyd’s.

While Lloyd’s bosses had already taken steps to try and tackle the problem, setting up a bullying and harassment helpline in April and threatening a lifetime ban on individuals found guilty of inappropriate behaviour, these measure have clearly failed thus far to have the desired wider effect.

This is because an organisation-wide culture shift is needed, which requires far more than the introduction of a few new rules and regulations.

Proper sustained culture change is difficult to initiate, particularly in a huge organisation like Lloyd’s where some 45,000 people are employed and old-fashioned attitudes and behavioural norms run deep.

However, as the recent negative headlines demonstrate, these issues can no longer be ignored.

This is where HR have a vital role to play.

How to initiate culture change

Ideally, HR will be seen and respected as a credible strategic business partner, working alongside senior business leaders to facilitate this culture change.

To successfully enact widespread culture change, HR must engage everyone at every level of the organisation.

All staff must feel they have a stake in the process and the desired culture of the business.

Only then will people be willing to buy into and support the changes.

This process begins with business-wide consultations and discussions in which everyone is given a voice.

At Lloyd’s, there is clear division and discontent within teams, with 20 per cent of workers saying they do not believe there are equal opportunities for all staff.

Bringing everyone together to agree on where things are going wrong, and what their future shared values should be, has the added benefit of helping to heal team divisions and create a greater sense of unity.

First, HR must ensure that all staff, from the top down, understand exactly what constitutes inappropriate behaviour and why.

Defining bullying, harassment and discrimination

HR need to have a comprehensive Dignity at Work policy in place, with clear definitions, procedures and appropriately trained designated contact persons, to address bullying and harassment.

Harassment and bullying can be defined as behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended, while discrimination is less favourable treatment of another person or persons.

Harassment and discrimination are against the law, in particular when they are related to one of nine protected characteristics, laid out in the Equality Act 2010 – disability, race, sex (gender) equality, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, religion and belief, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, and age.

They are illegal when they are made a condition of employment or are severe enough to be considered intimidating, hostile or abusive.

The key here is in recognising that it is the impact of the behaviour, rather than the action itself that is important, even if the effect is unintended.

HR must work at all levels to ensure there is clear understanding of these definitions and procedures. Here, training is key to raising awareness, understanding, and confidence amongst management and staff.

Fostering positive values

Everyone must be encouraged to agree upon common values and goals that will create a happier, more respectful workplace, and group discussions are key in this process.

HR can take the initiative and create discursive, safe and empowering environments in which teams and individuals can openly share their ideas and concerns, adding to what Kerry Patterson et al., in Crucial Conversations describe as a ‘shared pool of meaning’.

This is the first step in building a more unified team with mutual care.

Such discussions help to highlight concerns and sources of tension, helping each member of the team empathise with others’ experiences, perspectives and needs.

By fostering mutual understanding and encouraging everyone to agree on what kind of workplace culture they want to create, HR will greatly increase the chance of genuine behaviour change.

When a common understanding of the shared values and desired behaviours has been reached, HR must clearly record and communicate these, so that everyone in the wider organisation understands what they are uniting behind and can hold themselves and others mutually accountable.

Enable defence

With more educated and united employees, inappropriate behaviour should diminish. However, there must still be clear guidelines on informal and formal steps employees can take to raise and address concerns if such behaviour recurs.

An open-door policy that makes HR and senior managers available and approachable enables issues to be raised as early as possible, often preventing situations from escalating.

If issues cannot be dealt with informally, the HR team must take more formal steps to monitor and tackle behaviour. This is where written records of actions become necessary alongside conversations with all those involved, to try and find resolutions.

All HR departments should have designated Inclusion and Dignity at Work officers, trained in relevant respectful workplace legislation and the organisation’s policies and procedures.

Any complaints must be investigated and all parties consulted in a sensitive and confidential manner, with appropriate support offered to the alleged victim.

Sometimes workplace tensions can be smoothed by simply speaking to the ‘bully’, who may be unaware of the impact of their conduct. But HR must be prepared to take tougher disciplinary action when necessary.

In conclusion

Lloyd’s is far from being alone in needing to tackle discrimination, harassment and bullying. Many organisations across the private, public and third sectors have been subject to a string of high-profile accusations in recent months and years.

Organisations can no longer afford to ignore issues which, aside from the negative publicity, damage staff’s mental and physical wellbeing, which results in staff underperforming, stress-related absence and higher staff turnover – with related costs to the business.

In the end, a business is merely the output of its people. And people need to feel safe and valued to fulfil their potential and perform.

A steady process of education and communication should result in clear company guidelines, policies, and truly shared values, creating a happy united workplace.

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About Sylvia Sage

Sylvia Sage is a programme & client account director, training consultant, senior facilitator & coach at Corporate Learning Solutions, an international leadership and skills training and coaching organisation working with a range of organisations in the UK and around the world. Her main focus areas include training and coaching in leadership and management, building respectful workplaces based on shared values and mutual accountability, courageous conversations and conflict management, building confidence and overcoming barriers, interview skills, and many more.
With qualifications in business and management, languages, coaching and therapy, and a background in international banking, business and higher education in the UK and abroad, Sylvia has accumulated the skills required to work with people from any background and at any level.

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