Time's up for employers who think they can ignore #MeToo

Orlagh O’Neill, partner and head of the employment at Belfast law firm Carson McDowell
Gail Bell

TIME is up for employers who think they can ignore the #MeToo campaign, a partner at leading Belfast law firm Carson McDowell has said.

Orlagh O'Neill says sexual harassment is a hot topic that local employers need to address, and doing nothing is “no longer an option”.

“As Carson McDowell enters its second year as business partner/sponsor of the Irish News Workplace & Employment Awards, we know from clients that the best employers have realised they need to address the issue,” she said.

“That's because they are not simply treating it as a water-cooler conversation; they are testing whether their own procedures are fit for purpose.

“For instance, do your procedures act as an enabler or a barrier? Is your staff training on what is acceptable or not acceptable behaviour really up to date? Do staff feel safe in calling out inappropriate behaviour?”

Referring to the recent campaign highlighting sexual harassment in the film and theatre industries, Ms O'Neill said the call to speak up had “clearly resonated” with the public and had led many women to share their experiences publicly.

“You might be forgiven for thinking this is a Hollywood phenomenon, but while actors are making most of the headlines, the #MeToo movement provides lessons for all employers,” she added.

“The way in which the Old Vic Theatre in London managed the fallout from the allegations against Kevin Spacey stood out for me because, somewhat unusually for an employer in this difficult situation, the theatre published in full the conclusions to the external investigation.”

Although 20 people came forward with allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Kevin Spacey, Ms O'Neill pointed out that none of the allegations had been raised formally using the Old Vic's policies.

“When interviewed, other staff admitted they had observed some of the behaviours, but claimed they were unclear about how to respond at the time or they felt the theatre would not take the complaints seriously,.” she said.

“The investigation concluded that some of the factors that may have contributed to people not speaking up were Spacey's star power and lack of accountability, a fear that speaking out could result in them losing their job and a lack of clarity as to what constituted inappropriate behaviour."

In setting a new way forward, the theatre carried out a root-and-branch review of its anti-harassment policies and procedures, appointing “Guardians” from the theatre's board to champion best practice and be a first point of contact for those who don't want to reach out through formal channels.

“The absence of any formal complaints of harassment in your own organisation may be because you already have well developed policies and well trained staff,” Ms O'Neill said.

“However, you should consider that it may also be masking a workforce where employees are reluctant to speak up because they are afraid that they will not be believed or they fear their job will be under threat.

“Intervening to deal with harassment is not easy for any organisation, but taking the correct steps will ensure a more productive and successful place for everyone to work.”

:: The Irish News Workplace & Employment Awards take place in Titanic Belfast on Thursday June 14. Entries must be submitted by noon on Friday April 27 and the short-listed companies will be revealed in the Irish News on Thursday May 17.

:: More details at and follow us on Twitter @IrishNewsWEA

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