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Help me help you – encouraging staff to speak up

MediaWorks over the past few weeks has had the spotlight focused on its workplace culture. In the interests of transparency, it proactively released an Independent Review into Workplace Culture which was conducted by Maria Dew QC. The report was commissioned after allegations were raised in shutterstock 184867352 350731social media about these issues. The Chief Executive had also received reports of concerns around conduct and culture at MediaWorks.

The Chair of MediaWorks and the Director of People and Culture have resigned since the report.

The report shows that toxic workplace behaviours, including sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying, while serious, can often bubble away unaddressed.

At the outset of the report, Maria Dew noted that the process was a first for MediaWorks. She observed that issues raised in the report were not just for MediaWorks, but for the radio and media industry generally. Indeed, there are lessons in the report for all employers.

The report identified that there was a significant degree of bullying, sexual harassment, sexism and other discrimination (such as racism) within the organisation. It was found that half of the participants in the review had either witnessed or experienced sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination. There was a “common set of employees” who were of particular concern for making sexist comments at work. 45% of females and 34% of males reported observing some sort of bullying. The report noted that while this figure was high, the reports related primarily to specific employees within the organisation, rather than necessarily there being a widespread problem of bullying.

The report observed that there was a perceived “boys club” culture within the organisation. The “boys club” culture promoted and/or tolerated harmful behaviours within the workplace. This included on-going sexist and racist behaviours, repeated minimising of sexual harassment, failure to promote greater gender diversity and the misuse of alcohol and drugs. There was also a view that the “boys’ club” would only promote males to senior positions. The report concluded that the culture at MediaWorks suffered due to the “boy’s club” and lack of accountability.

The report noted that while outwardly there appeared to be a large pool of female employees at MediaWorks, senior management at the organisation was dominated by males. The report attributed this imbalance as allowing the perception of the “boys’ club” to thrive.

The report inquired into whether employees had complained about the behaviour, and if not, why not.

In some cases, employees felt unable to make a complaint because the person involved was too senior. In other situations, staff reported that they had made complaints about certain conduct but nothing was done following those complaints. With regard to the bullying, there was a view that much of the behaviour had gone on unchecked because that was “just how they are”. Finally, it was repeatedly raised during the review that staff said they were reluctant to speak up because they felt it was too risky given they felt replaceable and were lucky to have a job there.

The report was unfortunate given that it found there were many positive aspects to working at MediaWorks. Staff reported that they enjoyed the creative and fast paced work, and felt like they were able to express their individuality there. The report found that staff had a strong sense of loyalty to the MediaWorks brand. Staff also praised many “mid-tier” management who they considered were empathetic and supportive of them.

It is impossible to know to what extent senior management of MediaWorks were aware of these issues. However, the fact that such a report was commissioned in the first place indicates that they may have been unsure of the prevalence of any issues.

The report highlights that there is a danger within all organisations that problematic behaviour will be tolerated and not be properly dealt with. Where toxic workplace cultures develop unaddressed, organisations could become liable for a variety of grievances. Frequently a grievance will only be raised at the point where the situation has deteriorated to the point it cannot be remediated.

For this reason, it is prudent for all businesses to ensure that they keep aware of how the workplace culture is functioning and ensure that where a person has issues or complaints, they will feel safe to raise these in a timely way.

Addressing the reasons for why a person is not making a complaint is the best place to start.

In organisations where there are clear hierarchies and/or multiple tiers of management and/or highly motivated and specialised personnel, providing a system to allow employees to raise complaints confidentially or anonymously can be beneficial. The MediaWorks report demonstrates that people are often more confident in speaking up where they feel their identity will be kept confidential (all witnesses participated on the basis their identity would be kept confidential). While a confidential report may limit an organisation’s ability to investigate a complaint, the report can enable an employer to begin taking steps to address the issue. Employees should be told of what actions can be taken by the employer through this process. Particularly, the process is most beneficial where a clarification of expectations is all that’s required. For more serious complaints such as sexual harassment, or where conduct is being repeated despite previous complaints, employees should be encouraged to speak to staff such as HR or a senior manager. Similarly, if employees want to be told how their complaint has been followed up, they should be encouraged to identify themselves in their complaint.

For large employers, conducting 360 surveys can also be beneficial in identifying issues a person may be reluctant to raise.

It is very common for employees to report that after making a complaint “nothing will happen”. In situations where making a complaint may damage their work or promotion prospects, this can often deter a person from making a complaint. The perception “nothing will happen” frequently arises due to a complainant not being told what action has been taken. Communication is key. Management should ensure they inform an employee what steps they have taken and/or the outcomes of those actions. After taking steps, it is good practice to follow up with an employee and check whether the situation has improved. If not, then further action should be considered.

Finally, the report is a timely reminder that diversity at all tiers of an organisation is important. Having diversity in an organisation helps ensure that all voices are heard and respected, and that issues of sexism and/or racism are quickly identified and stamped out.

Creating an environment where employees feel they can safely raise their concerns is the best protection an employer can take to prevent issues of bullying, sexual harassment, sexism and racism. An open and inclusive culture ensures that when issues occur, these can quickly and easily be addressed before the situation becomes toxic.