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How ad agencies can tackle sexual harassment

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One in 10 advertising industry employees have suffered sexual harassment at work in the last 12 months, a recent report by think tank Credos revealed. These shocking findings came despite previous steps taken by the industry to stamp out such inappropriate behaviour.

Hundreds of companies across advertising signed up to the #timeTo initiative, launched in June last year by the Advertising Association, NABS and Women in Advertising and Communications (WACL). It introduced a code of conduct built upon previous industry research, detailing what kind of behaviour is and is not acceptable.

But nearly 18 months on, the Credos report showed sexual harassment remains widespread with the vast majority of victims (79%) never reporting the incident.

Nearly half of the people questioned said their company would benefit from clear sexual harassment guidelines and policies.  A third wanted training on dealing with sexual harassment.

All this serves to highlight that an industry-wide code of conduct being imposed from the top down does not get to the root causes of the issue. What the industry needs is sustained organisational culture change.

While this will vary at each different company, there are three key steps to implementing such a long-term shift in attitudes.

1. Education

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Before any other progress can be made, all staff at every level of an organisation must be educated in what constitutes bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination.

Harassment and bullying can be defined as conduct that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. Discrimination is “less favourable treatment of another person or persons”.

Harassment and discrimination are against the law in the UK. This is particularly clear where conduct is considered intimidating, hostile or abusive, or related to any of nine protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act 2010. These include gender, disability, age, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Crucially, it is the impact of the behaviour rather than the intent that is important. An action might be considered harassment, even if such an effect is unintended. Sometimes, tackling harassment or bullying is a case of educating the perpetrator who might be ignorant of the damaging impact of their behaviour.

2. Build positive values

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Once everyone has a thorough understanding of the type of conduct that is not acceptable, it is time to start building positive shared values around which everyone can unite.

This should involve everyone at every level of the organisation, to ensure that all staff are engaged in the process. If everyone is invested in implementing the desired changes, they are much more likely to embrace rather than resist them.

So, how to do this:

Ideally all staff should be brought together in a safe discursive environment where they can discuss and agree upon shared values. These values should foster mutual care and respect and be aligned to the purpose of the business.

Everyone should be invited to share their views, with no one individual being allowed to dominate. Having an unbiased external facilitator to moderate the process can prove very helpful here, to guide the discussions and really enable people to share their opinions.

Bringing everyone together to put their ideas on the table helps to create a ‘pool of shared meaning’, as described in Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson et al.  It is an essential first ingredient for a more unified team. Such discussions also help to filter out any concerns and stressors that cause tension.

It is important that a general consensus is reached, to enable everyone to hold themselves and others mutually accountable. Where such shared values have been agreed, they must be clearly communicated so that everyone understands what they are uniting behind.

Here, advertising bosses must lead by example. When senior staff start passing on their own pressures and stress to their staff, it creates a knock-on effect which results in a toxic working environment. It is the responsibility of all senior staff to adopt the new positive values of respect and care, so that these filter down through the organisation from the top.

3. Enable defence

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Once training to educate all staff on bullying, harassment and discrimination has been completed, there should be a dramatic reduction in misconduct. However, all companies must have clear formal and informal steps for raising and addressing concerns as early as possible – before situations can escalate.

With such a huge proportion of sexual harassment going unreported, there clearly needs to be a much greater effort on the part of companies to facilitate reporting of inappropriate behaviour. An open-door policy that makes senior managers and HR teams available and approachable is a good starting point.

If issues cannot be dealt with informally, management must take more formal steps to monitor and tackle these. Any complaint should be properly investigated, with all parties consulted in a sensitive and confidential manner and appropriate support offered to the alleged victim. Senior managers must be prepared to take stringent disciplinary action if necessary.

Change for good

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Proper sustainable culture change does not happen overnight. It is not a quick fix and cannot be rushed. This is why so many superficial tick-box publicity exercises to deal with misconduct fail.

There is a vast and growing body of research to show people can only fulfil their potential when they feel happy and safe, and this applies to all aspects of life, including work. Happier staff means more effective staff, resulting in better business performance.

In an industry like advertising, a company of energised, motivated employees is much more likely to generate creative ideas and win new clients.

Eliminating behaviour that undermines workplace wellbeing requires a thorough process of re-education but will be worth the time and effort invested.

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Sylvia Sage is programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions.

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