Legal Thought Leadership

Are the scales tipping in the battle against harassment at work?

January 14, 2019

Are the scales tipping in the battle against harassment at work?

 

The allegations of harassment against Ted Baker founder Ray Kelvin are the latest in a series of claims against high profile men that have hit the headlines over the past few months. Some interesting factors in this case indicate why behavior once accepted as the norm in the workplace will no longer go unchecked.

 Another week, another series of harassment allegations. This time the alleged perpetrator is Ray Kelvin, founder of fashion brand Ted Baker.

It is claimed that Kelvin’s behavior toward his staff included forced hugs, ear kissing and stroking people’s necks. One former member of staff said: “He would give long hugs. The office was a big open space where we all could see. He would hug several people a day and it would be very uncomfortable.”

Newspaper reports describe Kelvin as “a larger than life character” and say that staff simply accepted his actions as “Ray’s way”. In my experience, it is not untypical for victims or witnesses of this type of behavior by people in positions of power to excuse it in this manner.

Writing in the Guardian, Erica Roffe, who worked for Ted Baker in the 1990s, described a “cocksure corporate culture very much built in Ray’s image. You had to have resilience to take the sex chat and the ‘banter’, to accept the often unwanted physical contact and to put up with the ritual humiliation.”

What’s interesting about the allegations against Ray Kelvin is that they indicate that the tide might be turning in the battle against the harassment of employees.

Why is this? For one thing, I think more people now realise what sexual harassment in legal terms actually is.

As I wrote about in my article about #MeToo, for the purposes of making a claim against an employer, sexual harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, that has either the purpose or effect of violating that person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”

Erica Roffe recounts in her article a car journey to a football match in which Kelvin talked in detail about his sex life. She says she regrets not standing up to him about that and about instances in which other staff members were humiliated.

Had she done so, it is likely her complaints would have fallen on deaf ears. The allegations against Kelvin only garnered press attention as a result of a petition by more than 300 current or former staff on the online campaigning platform, Organise. In the petition, Organise says complaints to Ted Baker’s HR department were “willfully ignored by those in charge”.

The fact that these allegations against Kelvin were able to come to light as a result of an anonymous online platform is another reason why this sort of behavior is no longer being tolerated.

Ted Baker initially sought to play down the allegations. A statement by it said: “While the claims made are entirely at odds with the values of our business and those of our CEO, we take them very seriously. Ray greets many people he meets with a hug – be it a shareholder, investor, supplier, partner, customer or colleague. Hugs have become part of Ted Baker’s culture, but are absolutely not insisted upon.”

In an attempt to ride out the storm, the company appointed a law firm to carry out an independent investigation but said Kelvin would stay in his job. As if to prove that not all publicity is good publicity, the company quickly backtracked on this a few days later after its board was made aware of “further serious allegations”. It announced that Kelvin would take a leave of absence and be replaced by an acting CEO with immediate effect.

A further indication that inappropriate behavior will no longer go unchecked was the impact on Ted Baker’s share price after the claims came to light. Shares dropped nearly 13% in early trading after the news was announced due to fears among investors on the impact on of the claims on the Ted Baker brand.

I sense that this outing of Ray Kelvin (albeit that at this stage the allegations have yet to be proved and may be unfounded) is one of many that will hit the press over the next few months. Organise’s website is celebrating its success and says it is inspiring hundreds more people to share their own stories of harassment. This is to be welcomed.

 

To discuss any issues relating to sexual harassment, discrimination or racism in the workplace, please get in touch for a confidential discussion.

Thalis Vlachos

DD: +44 (0) 7971 000 048

Email: thalis.vlachos@gunnercooke.com

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