While many firms are very forward looking, it is apparent that the old “Mad Men” culture is hanging on in several locations, not least in law firms, even if in isolated pockets.
A couple of weeks ago, Lloyds of London announced a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment after it had been called “a meat market” and “institutionally sexist”. In response to recent allegations of harassment, Lloyds has announced that it will impose lifetime bans on anyone found guilty of “inappropriate behaviour”, as well as banning daytime drinking, again with a complete ban from the market for those who breach the rules.
Judging by recent reports, it seems that several law firms could benefit from considering what steps should be taken to contain the actions of their owners and employees.
In Harrison v Riaa Barker Gillette LLP, a case heard over 11 days in late 2017 and early 2018 but in respect of which the judgment wasn’t published until March 2019, the employment tribunal was asked to consider complaints of sex discrimination, victimisation and harassment brought by Ms Harrison, formerly a partner and head of employment with the Respondent, a commercial and private client law firm based in the West End.
Ms Harrison joined the firm in December 2012 and was at the time the only female partner. She described “a male dominated environment where inappropriate sexist and sometimes racist behaviour was tolerated, and on occasions laughed at”, with partners engaging in puerile banter.
While the facts were hotly disputed in the tribunal, it did find that there were an excessive number of emails in circulation among the partners containing jokes obtained from the Internet. However, there was no hard evidence of any specifically discriminatory jokes.
However, a specific example was available in the form of a comment from one the founding partners, Mr Gillette, in an email considering an application for employment by someone called Raminder:
Looks like he was educated in India – hope he does not talk like one of them call centre people over there.
It was agreed that this was an inappropriate email, but it also appeared to be an isolated incident. Other examples were considered but were inconclusive. The tribunal then turned to the actions of a Mr Verma, a partner who, it was alleged by his own admission, had a reputation for getting drunk and misbehaving at parties. It was claimed that he had tried to kiss female employees, admitting that he did so on one occasion and that he tried to do so on “numerous occasions”. It was claimed that he had used “cheesy chat up lines” including “you are pretty”, “I love you” and “give me a kiss”.
Against this background Ms Harrison claimed to have been assaulted by Mr Verma on two occasions.
The first was when she was on the way to a counselling session and Mr Verma gave her directions. She claimed that he said that he should be rewarded for doing so with a kiss on the lips. She laughed it off but he then leant over and attempted to kiss her. Mr Verma did not give any evidence at all at the Tribunal, which concluded on the balance of probabilities that the incident did occur.
The second incident was alleged to have taken place at the firm’s 2015 Christmas party. Ms Harrison says that she had heard from others that Mr Verma was drunk and behaving foolishly. She saw him and suggested to him that he might want to sit down. She maintained that he was obviously drunk and tried to dance with her. She suggested that they should get some water and fresh air. They mistakenly went to the first floor where Mr Verma tried to open the doors of several hotel rooms, saying “come on T we can have a quickie: no one will know”. He pulled Ms Harrison towards him and tried several times to kiss her. She refused, pointing out that he was married. She said in evidence that she “was panicking and inside [she] was really scared”. Again, in the absence of any evidence from Mr Verma and notwithstanding that the incident was not referred to until it was set out in the tribunal claim form, her account was accepted by the tribunal on the balance of probabilities.
Ms Harrison also claimed that after a complaint was upheld against her, she was required to be supervised by a junior solicitor and this led her to resign. However, her resulting claim of constructive unfair dismissal was rejected, as were her claims of victimisation.
The two claims of what were described by the tribunal as sexual assaults were upheld and the case was adjourned pending a remedy hearing. Although the majority of the claims made in the proceedings were rejected, the assaults by Mr Verma were found to have taken place. The firm had strenuously argued that Mr Verma’s name should be anonymised in the Reasons accompanying the Judgment, but that application failed and the case has been widely reported in legal circles.
Meanwhile, on 12 April national firm Capsticks Solicitors LLP, a specialist in regulatory law that provides services to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, confirmed that it had terminated the employment of one its partners for what was described as “inappropriate conduct”. No further details were provided.
Some people still take the view that what they consider to be the “old-fashioned way” of dealing with employee relations is the best. However, as I’ve reported elsewhere in this blog, we live in fast-changing times and businesses which do not have and deploy meaningful equality and diversity policies, including SMEs, are taking a high risk that if things go wrong even if unexpectedly, e.g. misbehaviour by a rogue employee, they will ultimately be held responsible.