Last month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission forced the Government to change its equal treatment laws to protect workers from ‘any unwanted conduct related to their sex'.
The new legislation is especially pertinent to industries employing a large number of young women: namely, retail, hospitality and, of course, PR. From now on, employers are responsible for ensuring their staff are not sexually harassed by clients. Agency chiefs could find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit should a boozy night out result in a client making unwanted advances towards a PR professional.
Given the industry's social reputation, not to mention the prevalence of young female employees, will these laws present an unrealistic burden for agency heads? One prominent employment law consultant believes so.
‘For the new legislation to place the entire responsibility for the words and actions of their clients on the head of the employer is ridiculous,' says Peter Mooney, head of consultancy at Employment Law Advisory Services.
‘Managers cannot be expected to suddenly start listening to all of the conversations between their employees and customers on the off-chance that something unacceptable is said and
the employee starts legal action claiming that they are being sexually harassed.'
Tom Potbury, senior associate in employment law at Pinsent Masons, has already dealt with a large number of these cases, usually defending agency MDs against employees' claims. ‘In one sense it's easy - it's quick and cheap to bring a claim to an employment tribunal,' he says.
‘But it's quite a frightening process for the individual involved. I have absolutely no doubt that this damages future career prospects, especially if it makes it to the press. The woman's name will be out there, and some employers will be wary.'
He advises agency bosses to consider a buddy system: send another, older PRO along with a young female employee to meet a client for a drink or overnight at a conference. ‘Some people would say, don't make a point of recruiting attractive young women,' he adds. ‘If you hire someone based on merit who is attractive, you need to think of which clients you'll
introduce them to.'
Some agency MDs see this as blatant discrimination in itself - and, possibly, the beginning of more legal woes. ‘There are certain clients that I do not want young female members of staff working with because I know what they are like,' says the head of a mid-sized agency. ‘Under this law, I'm probably doing the right thing.
But I also have to be careful that I do not cause these women any offence in suggesting they can't handle such situations - something that was raised with me by a member of staff. Could I be sued for discrimination if I don't let her try to handle these people on her own?'
Of course, sexual harassment worries are not limited to women. Potbury has seen his fair share of claims by men, although he admits it is ‘far less common'. Rainier PR MD Stephen Waddington adds that the relationship between PROs and clients is not the only concern for an agency head, as these situations can just as easily arise between staffers or between employees and journalists.
‘It is human nature that in any people-centric business, intimate relationships inevitably develop - between opposite and same sexes,' he says. ‘The most important objective is to address the concerns of the individual quickly and assure them that sexual harassment is not acceptable and definitely not tolerated.'
Of course, while sexual harassment is now an agency MD's legal responsibility, it does not mean these sorts of issues are always dealt with in a professional manner. As with many uncomfortable situations, seniority can trump legality.
‘At my last agency, the male finance director sexually assaulted his male assistant during a company trip abroad,' says one PRO who does not wish to be identified. ‘The assistant was forced to leave and the finance director got away with it.'
First-hand experience of sexual harassment in PR
One person in particular we have to work with for a certain client will not employ us as his PR company. He told me the reason straight one day: "I'm sorry, but you do not employ enough young, fit girls." -- Agency head, regional firm
At an agency I used to work for, one client got overly friendly with a young, pretty account executive on a train after a meeting. Our MD told her to forget it - as if it's something you are paid to put up with. -- Senior account director, London agency
At one consultancy I worked for, I was assigned a young entrepreneur as a client. After our first meeting, my boss left, leaving me to walk to the tube station with the client. No sooner had my boss departed, than the client asked me if I would go to a hotel with him.
I have experienced banter in the past, and I have to say that it doesn't usually faze me. But this left me totally shocked that anyone could behave in such a manner, especially a relative stranger within a professional setting. -- Account director, consumer agency