The #MeToo movement has been somewhat of a revolution. It is forcing change in the way businesses operate, with ever more scrutiny on sexual harassment in the workplace - and more generally on workplace culture.
Big business has found out the hard way, with scandals hitting global organisations such as Google and Uber, and individual entrepreneurs such as Sir Philip Green, the kingpin at Arcadia, and Ray Kelvin, Ted Baker's CEO (who notoriously introduced a policy of "forced hugging"), alike. Business owners and operators have found themselves under a magnifying lens.
Taking Sir Green as an example, with the high street already struggling, the resulting boycott of Topshop couldn't have come at a worse time for those in management, or those on the shopfront. It's clear that #MeToo allegations can have a wide impact on the success of a company - or even a whole business empire.
Interestingly, it has been reported that tech investors are increasingly including "#MeToo clauses" in new deals with start-ups, forcing them to disclose any complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment issues are also becoming a material concern in the due diligence process on sales and acquisitions. It's clear that investors and business purchasers are conscious of the potential costs of #MeToo.
So what can be done to manage risks and create new opportunities? It's not all doom and gloom and we see real opportunity for business owners and entrepreneurs in this movement.
Customers, clients, employees and investors alike are acting with their feet. If business owners can show that they foster an open culture, where discrimination of any kind is not tolerated and where staff feel comfortable to speak openly and report matters of misconduct (sexual or otherwise), they are likely to be able to better recruit and retain staff and attract new customers. Transparency is key.
It's important that businesses put in place appropriate policies and procedures, covering equal opportunities and whistleblowing generally, but also setting out the business' expectations regarding sexual harassment in the workplace and the potential sanctions for such behaviour. Training staff on these matters is also crucial. What the recent high profile cases have shown is that it is fundamentally important that this is a top-led initiative, with management and business owners demonstrating that they take these matters seriously and are invested in the program.
However, businesses should also be careful not to jump to conclusions where allegations of sexual misconduct have been made. Each allegation should be carefully investigated, with due consideration being given to both the person making the allegations and the "accused". Failure to do so could result in expensive employment claims.
Whilst there is still an important place for settlement agreements and confidentiality agreements (or NDAs), and they can be beneficial to both businesses and staff, employers do need to remember that they cannot prevent a worker from reporting a whistleblowing concern. This will include allegations of sexual misconduct made to a relevant regulator, or, in some circumstances, the police or the media.
Acas statistics issued last year show that businesses in the UK still have a long way to go to change workplace culture, with only 38% of workers reporting that they would be "very likely" to report sexual harassment if they personally experienced it in the workplace. Now is the time for business owners and entrepreneurs to step up and establish themselves as leaders in what could be a very progressive movement. Change can be good for business.