6 Jul 2018

Changing 'work hard, play hard' culture not enough

10:02 pm on 6 July 2018

By Fiona McNamara*

Opinion - Dame Margaret Bazley's review of Russell McVeagh is full of important recommendations for overhauling the "work hard, play hard" culture that she has identified at the firm.

Dame Margaret Bazley led the review into Law firm Russell McVeagh.

Dame Margaret Bazley led the review into Law firm Russell McVeagh. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Yet, in reading the review, I am struck by the same thought I had when reading NZ Rugby's 2017 Respect and Responsibility Review. For a review that was initiated as a response to allegations of sexual harm, there are not a lot of recommendations that address sexual harm.

It sounds like this "work hard play hard" culture has caused serious harm to staff and clearly it needs to change. However, a workplace can have a "work hard play hard" culture and not have sexual harm, and likewise a workplace can end its "work hard play hard" culture and still have sexual harm.

The same goes for alcohol. There is a link between alcohol and sexual violence: NZ research shows that 50 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol, but equally, 50 percent of incidents do not involve alcohol. It is a risk factor, but it is not simply cause and effect. We know that if we drink alcohol, we are not inevitably going to do sexual harm.

There is merit in considering the availability of alcohol at events and any organisation that provides alcohol needs to consider their host responsibility, but that host responsibility must explicitly address sexual violence.

Clearly alcohol has been a problem at Russell McVeagh, as it is in other law firms and other workplaces, and this should be addressed. However, it's not a quick fix solution to preventing sexual violence. To focus on alcohol in this instance is to focus on the wrong problem.

I agree with Dame Margaret's assertion of the need for a 10-year plan to overhaul a culture and with her recommendations to do so. The recommendations around unconscious bias training, rainbow training and people management training and gender equality are all admirable and important however they do not directly address the specific problem that the review was set up to address.

What is needed is specific recommendations for how to change those particular behaviours and attitudes that lead to sexual harm. To transform a culture rife with sexual harm, we need to address those underlying and related issues, but we also need to challenge the harmful behaviours themselves.

From my perspective, leading an organisation that works with workplaces including other law firms to address sexual harm, I add the following recommendations:

1. That all staff and governance undertake sexual abuse and harassment prevention training. This training should include challenging attitudes and behaviours that lead to sexual harm, make clear what is and is not acceptable behaviour in the workplace (and outside of it) and develop participants' understanding of consent.

2. That all staff and governance undertake bystander intervention training. This would include developing skills to recognise warning signs of harmful sexual behaviour, subtle forms of harassment and how to safely and effectively intervene.

3. That all staff in roles where they are likely to receive disclosures of sexual harm or to be part of a process following an incident, undertake specific training which includes: What to say and what not to say, who to refer the complainant to, and how to support them and their support people in an ongoing way.

*Fiona McNamara is general manger at the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, a service that provides consultancy services, education and training aimed at ending sexual abuse.

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