Greater use of employment tribunals could reduce sexual harassment in PR and comms

The PRCA survey into sexual harassment is sad reading but not surprising, and is borne out by my experience in advising NUJ members in the PR industry and indeed across other sectors of the media.

Policies are all very well on paper but employers must be held to account, argues Fiona Swarbrick
Policies are all very well on paper but employers must be held to account, argues Fiona Swarbrick

I think the reasons why there so often appears to be little or no consequence for the perpetrators of sexual harassment are complex, and some of them are mentioned in the research and case study: too much emphasis on ‘the client is king’, too few women in senior roles across the industry, a culture of seeing women working in PR as stereotypical ‘PR girls’ who ought to expect disrespectful treatment as standard.

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To that I would add that there are few areas of the PR industry that are unionised, with the attendant culture of empowerment, accountability and safe, effective communication that brings.

There is also a general political mood in the UK towards emphasising settlement of employment cases outside the Employment Tribunal, settlements that are done on the basis of confidentiality.

At times this is beneficial to our members, who can be so psychologically harmed by their experiences that there is no other option but to negotiate an exit package on their behalf, rather than facing months of uncertainty followed by a gruelling legal process.

On the other side of that coin, however, is the prospect of the perpetrator being paid off with an agreed reference then allowed to move on and potentially re-offend at their next workplace.

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As well as these more obvious barriers to justice, members often present to me long after an act of discrimination or harassment has been committed (because they have been afraid not to be believed, or have been dealing with the psychological fallout of the situation) when the strict time limits for making an employment claim have expired.

Even when this is not the case they have so little faith in their employer, often because of organisational cultures which appear to tolerate toxic behaviour, that they cannot be persuaded to go on the record at all.

Sexual harassment is damaging the reputation of the public affairs sector

In such cases all the NUJ can do is try to support the member as best we can and make sure they are making informed decisions.

I would urge anyone facing this sort of treatment to come to us in confidence and access that advice and support.

We will always be led by the member and would never breach confidentiality.

As I see it, the onus should not be on individuals who have suffered discrimination and harassment to act as crusaders to try to change toxic organisational cultures.

If employers were serious about making a change, they would be working with their staff collectively through trade unions.

Trade unions can provide expert advice and support to staff, just as HR professionals do to employers, and can ensure that work to tackle discrimination and harassment is carried out on a level playing field.

Policies are all very well on paper, the devil is in their implementation and structures need to be put in place by which employers can be held to account.

Employers who genuinely wish to change the culture around sexual harassment in the workplace would welcome this, as it would afford the opportunity not only to work more effectively with staff to make the necessary changes, but to be seen to be doing so.

I would welcome the opportunity to talk to any employer who would like to explore these possibilities further.

Fiona Swarbrick is national organiser for PR and communications at the National Union of Journalists

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