By Kieran McCartan, PhD, and David S. Prescott, LICSW
The concept of culture is important in understanding how people experience and engage with the world around them. Over the years on this blog, we have talked about different types of culture and their relationship to sexual abuse. The conversation is one that never stops because although we want a society that does not allow and or promote sexual violence, we have not arrived there (although we are further down the road than where we started from). Culture change is difficult and takes time; the #Metoo and everyone’s invited movements are recent examples. However, at a local community level, cultural change should be easier and more realistic. Community culture change is more contained, and it can be easier to gain buy-in. Two stories this week from the UK serve as examples of the difficulty of culture change. These involve the BBC in one and the other, McDonald’s. In both employment-based communities, the necessary culture change that is needed to prevent sexually abuse isn’t happening. Instead, what we see is employer disengagement, denial, inaction, and risky behaviors.
Over the last two weeks, the BBC has been involved in a story about one of its leading presenters being allegedly involved in sexually exploitative practices, as reported by The Sun and based upon information from the victims’ parents. The claim from The Sun was that the presenter had been involved in an exploitative relationship over three years with a vulnerable female. It involved paying her monies totaling £35,00 for sexually explicit photos and imagery of herself. The report claimed that she was vulnerable, was using the money to pay for heroin, and that the abuse started when she was 17. In the report the parents claimed that they had approached and reported this to the BBC, who had done nothing. After the story was published many high-profile BBC presenters distanced themselves from the events, including on social media. Additionally, the victim came out and said the story was “rubbish”. Eventually the wife of the person at the center of this story came out and named her husband, Huw Edwards, as the person at the center of the story. In this statement she says that her husband suffers from major bouts of depression and is currently hospitalized.
In short, it’s a mess. We are aware that media coverage of breaking news can be flawed. Nonetheless, it is clear that the BBC, like many other organizations, have a long way to go to prevent abuse in the workplace and by people in positions of trust.
Over the course of this story, the BBC has been criticized for not taking the claim seriously, trying to cover the story up, trying to protect the person at the center of this, and having a culture where abuse, cover-up, and mystery is commonplace. The BBC responded and said that it was protecting the human rights of person at the center of this, that that had suspended them, and a full investigation would take place. Since the release of this report, more allegations against Huw Edwards have come out from BBC colleagues.
The story highlights the need for an engaged employer who can respond to claims of abuse, that has policies and practices in place to respond, and can demonstrate that they take the claims seriously. One note of consideration about this story is why the BBC would get involved in a private case as this not between to employees? As the presenter in question is very senior and the face of a flagship news program, there are expectations of his behaviors and attitudes that go beyond the organization. Both the presenter and the organization are in positions of public trust. There are concerns of moral fiber, questions of trustworthiness, and issues related to institutional damage. Also, without phone logs we don’t know when the messages took place or whether it was on company time, with a company phone, etc.
The second story also involves the BBC, but this time in an investigatory role. Early this week, they reported on an investigation into reports of sexual abuse, misogyny, harassment, and bullying at McDonald’s restaurants in the UK. The report claimed that many victims of abuse reported them to management and to corporate headquarters but were dismissed and ignored. This often resulted in the employee leaving. Within 48 hours of the story breaking over 100 more former employees verified and expanded on the claims in the report, indicating that the culture of abuse was wider and more significant than originally thought. This case, like the BBC, involves an organization that likely is not in touch with the realities of abusive behavior in their workforce, does not listen to people who are victimized, and do not engage with the problems or the people involved. The CEO of McDonalds’ UK and Ireland admitted this, saying that they as an organization had let staff (especially young staff) down and would strive to do better in the future.
It should be obvious that everyone has the right to work in a workplace free from sexual harm and misogyny. Everyone has the right to have an employer that is engaged around these topics, takes reports seriously, and engages with staff appropriately in response. This, however, hasn’t been the case. We would suggest the BBC and McDonald’s are not outliers in this area, but that they are representative of many organizations who need to come to terms with abuse. This raises the question of what employers are doing to make their workplaces abuse free and protect their staff from harm. Are they writing policies without meaningfully implementing them or making earnest attempts to end abuse now?
In an ideal world, we would have research-informed messaging, support for staff wellbeing, trauma-informed workplaces, and activities that promote inclusion and equality; but unfortunately, we are not there yet. Here are some ideas of what employers can do:
- Create a culture of equality, inclusion, and diversity though actions, communication, and environment.
- Link together corporate policy and practice, behaviors, attitudes, and actions on the ground.
- Embrace compassionate leadership and create a culture that acknowledges and supports staff who have experienced trauma and difficulties.
- Train and upskill staff around behavioral and attitudinal expectations when in work and then hold them accountable to them.
- Encourage staff to speak out about abuse and offence behavior. In addition, create systems that allow this to be done in a safe and anonymous fashion if needed.
- Listen to staff when they do speak out and have HR/wellbeing procedures in place to respond to these issues.
- Make sure that anyone involved in abuse or problematic behavior is treated in fair and transparent fashion.
- Make sure that all messaging and communications are fair, balanced, and respectful.
- Post investigates make sure that staff are supported to return to/reengage with work in protected, proactive fashion.
- Review policies, practices, training, and the working environment regularly see if current practices are fit for purpose.
But the bigger question is how can employees and society hold employers to account to make sure that they do this and maintain standards? Do we need an industry badging system like Athena Swan (“a framework which is used across the globe to support and transform gender equality within higher education (HE) and research”)? Our belief is that there are some aspects of organizational culture that cannot always be left to organizations to monitor themselves.