Clubbing to candlemaking: how companies are handling #MeToo

After the pretty depressing news about the CBI recently, here is an interesting article in The Times about how companies are trying to organise fun events for their staff that they hope won’t result in allegations of assault (ie – avoiding parties, alcohol and confined spaces…..)

As this year’s ski season slid to an end, no Just Eat Takeaway orange jackets were visible in the Alpine resort of Arosa. This time last year, 5,400 employees of the Dutch food delivery giant descended on the Swiss village for an all-expenses-paid skiing and team-building extravaganza.

However, after chief operating officer Joerg Gerbig had to step aside over “possible personal misconduct” at the event last year and the leadership faced a backlash from shareholders, 2023’s “Snow Fest” never materialised. Gerbig was later reinstated but the reputational damage to the company, and arguably him, had been done.

For employers, the work-do-gone-awry can mean bad PR. For their female employees, the stakes are much, much higher: too many have seen high spirits descend into a free-for-all of harassment, assault and even rape.

The recent revelations of alleged rape at a 2019 boat party for the CBI, and last week’s dismissal of the organisation’s director-general Tony Danker over separate “workplace conduct” claims has prompted a post-#MeToo soul-search among business leaders. In an interview with the Financial Times, CBI chairman Brian McBride yesterday apologised to more than a dozen women affected by the scandal.

As the boss of one of Britain’s biggest employers put it: “It’s prompted me to go back to our HR team and make sure we’ve properly looked into any outstanding claims of this sort. And I’d imagine many other bosses are doing the same.”

Just Eat has replaced its annual skiing jamboree with small, low-key local events, echoing the likes of Slaughter & May, the law firm, which banned staff ski breaks after sexual harassment claims.

“It’s hard to point to an example of where those sorts of major, corporate, tub-thumping events have gone well,” said Ann Francke of the Chartered Management Institute. “It’s far more likely that it has resulted in pretty bad behaviours and some pretty bad reputational damage. Let’s face it, bad behaviour often occurs when people drink too much. There’s always ways you can socialise in a human way and that doesn’t necessarily have to involve getting plastered and assaulting someone.”

Alcohol is, by its nature, excluding. Among 16 to 24-year-olds, 26 per cent are teetotal. Some faith groups such as Muslims also do not drink. For many firms, allowing workplace socialising to revolve around drink is no longer acceptable.

According to Francke, women are less likely to thrive if a work’s culture revolves around alcohol. They are still far more likely than men to bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities and are less likely to be excited by the prospect of an after-work drink, especially with a majority-male group of colleagues. Missing out on a pint with the senior manager can see them overlooked for job opportunities: “Women aren’t sponsored enough” adds Francke.

At The Grove, a Hertfordshire hotspot for corporate away days and overnight stays, group managing director Bernard Murphy has noticed that less is being spent at the bar than ever before.

“To just sit people in one place, then all go for dinner, then have lots of drink afterwards: it doesn’t seem to be of interest — it doesn’t seem to work,” he said. Staying overnight, with colleagues in close quarters, is seen as an unnecessary risk. Instead, companies are requesting group activities in the hotel’s sprawling grounds such as archery, laser clay-pigeon shooting, or even guided gardening tours.

Rebecca Kelly, the founder and chief executive of VenueScanner, a search and booking platform for events spaces, has seen a shift in recent years. She said: “The trend we are definitely seeing is less going on a night out or events centred around booze that can result in challenges, and more wholesome activities such as guest speakers, foraging, or candle-making. In my experience, these event types are more inclusive and can make people feel safer.”

A recent survey by operator Etc Venues of 400 events professionals by venue, two-thirds were taking more bookings for one-day events than ever. Daytime team-building events ranging from cookery classes to treasure hunts have replaced boozy overnight stays.

“The number of events we do with overnight accommodation has dramatically reduced,” said David Watt, chief executive of events firm CI Group.

Avoiding scandal may not be the only incentive for this trend, as the rise of homeworking for at least some part of the week has made staff less enthralled by the prospect of a multi-day jolly.

But the #MeToo revolution has put the onus on employers to develop rules on what is acceptable in the workplace and investigate claims, rather than sweep them under the carpet. In the case of the CBI scandal, perhaps the most damaging claim is that the alleged rape victim was advised by a manager to get counselling rather than pursue the matter. The CBI said it had no record of the incident.

“It becomes the employer’s issue when a complaint is made, that’s the main thing that’s changed … even if the complaint is anonymous,” said Corinne Aldridge, lawyer at Kingsley Napley, who represents companies trying to tackle workplace harassment.

“Whistleblowing lines”, anonymous forums that were set up as tools for staff to report foul play in the business, are now being used as platforms for airing concerns over predatory behaviour.

Companies are also writing in more stringent policies on how staff should be messaging each other on WhatsApp or Slack. During lockdown, the line between personal and work communications blurred between many colleagues, said Aldridge, potentially giving way to conversations straying into inappropriate areas. “When you have that kind of blurring, there is always the opportunity for risk.”

Firms are making sure they write powers or warnings into their contracts to allow them to ask for communications between colleagues if an incident is reported.

HR and legal departments are particularly concerned about written messages as they could be used as evidence in future claims and be located by employees in subject access requests — where organisations are compelled to release any communications about a person.

New workplace romance rules — especially for senior employees — are seen as a key tool to deter damaging scandals. McDonald’s fell foul of their own rules in 2019, when Steve Easterbrook stepped down as chief executive after entering into a relationship with a senior female colleague. While the relationship was consensual, the rule-breaking wiped $4 billion from share price at the time, and Easterbrook was later fined £328,000 by regulators for lying about the extent of his workplace romances.

Despite the shift in the rhetoric from bosses, there is still what Franke called a “say/do” gap, between words and action.

Michelle Last, an employment lawyer who represents victims of sexual assault in the workplace, believes there has been a rise in sexual violence in recent years, and that companies, if they do act, mainly do so in reaction to allegations instead of taking pre-emptive steps.

“Unfortunately, we’re facing an epidemic of sexual assault and things are definitely getting worse,” said Last, who is currently representing Sophie Brook, a former naval officer, in a high-profile case against the Royal Navy who claims she was abused and sexually harassed in the service over several years.

“Since the #MeToo movement, there’s been a huge backlash by white middle-aged men in particular. There’s an attitude of ‘I can do what I want … If you’re to try to tell me, I’m going to push ahead and see what I can get away with,’” added Last.

For her, the hardest part is the silence. The vast majority of cases are resolved in settlements and non-disclosure agreements. Taking a rape case to trial can be very traumatic for the victim and the likelihood of a charge is 100/1. This means the names of the companies or perpetrators are never revealed.

In one of her current cases, a young female employee claimed that she had left a work event to look after her children at home but woke up in the taxi to find a senior employee had his hand between her legs and was kissing her face. The man, she claims, was a known sexual predator in the office but had not been disciplined prior to the alleged assault. In another case, settled more than a year ago, a woman in her 50s claimed she was raped by a colleague during a boozy work conference trip at a hotel. She alleged that senior employees, including her managing director, put her at risk by going to bed, leaving her alone on a sofa with the man who was visibly trying to get close to her even though she was clearly inebriated. The man is still working at the firm, a construction company with 2,000 employees. She reported the rape to the police who took no action, then resigned and took the company to an employment tribunal where the company settled the case.

Last said the industries with the most frequent and serious claims were property management and construction — industries heavily represented at the notorious Presidents Club men-only dinners, where the Financial Times exposed groping and harassment of hostesses.

However, her other ongoing cases include creative industries and state sector clients. “These aren’t tin-pot employers, they are large companies you absolutely would have heard of,” said Last.

Despite the risk posed to female staff, the companies often brush off serious claims as a fuss over nothing, she said. In one instance, a woman who had accused a colleague of sexual assault was told by her line manager: “There’s a war going on in Ukraine — I’ve limited sympathy for you.”

While, almost six years on since #MeToo started, the picture in too many workplaces remains grim, bosses are starting to become more aware that if a culture remains unsafe, their job and the health of the company are on the line.

In the words of former Crown Prosecution Service HR boss, Angela O’Connor, who now advises companies: “We have definitely not seen a decrease in issues. What we have seen, though, is an increase in the understanding and awareness of senior people — that is starting to happen.”