The committee was seeking evidence on the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in cases of harassment amid concerns of their potential misuse. Any steps to prevent the misuse of NDAs are important in the overall fight against bullying and harassment in the workplace, and the hard work of this committee is central to this.
I welcomed the opportunity to give an insight into my experience at Deloitte in focusing on culture, and the difference we’ve made in the past few years. I believe preventing the misuse of confidentiality clauses and NDAs is absolutely critical, but it is only one piece of the jigsaw. Indeed, as I said in my evidence to MPs, steps like banning NDAs feel like putting a small sticking plaster over a very large cut.
While most organisations have long had policies to prevent and deal with bullying and harassment, these clearly have not been enough. This issue goes beyond that of policies because people need to feel safe to speak up without fear of retaliation or career penalty, and trust that the right thing will be done when they do so.
In 2014, as part of our work to understand how we could achieve better gender balance in our firm, I met with groups of our female employees. My aim was to listen and understand what the data wasn’t telling me: how did our women feel about our firm and what would ensure they stayed with us? Like many organisations, we were losing some fantastic women at particular points in their career.
While much of the conversation instantly turned to a need for better work life balance – something that I’m proud to say we have made significant progress in addressing, there was also another consistent element.
Women told us that they sometimes experienced behaviours counter to our values. Most typically this was what is often described as ‘banter’, comments dressed up as a joke that are at the expense of someone else – comments that slowly erode confidence and sense of self-worth. Some also reported other behaviours that made them feel uncomfortable.
When asked about why they didn’t speak out about this, the answers were equally consistent: it either didn’t feel ‘big’ enough to go to HR - the only route they saw as available to them - or they were worried about the impact that speaking up would have on their careers, as often the issue related to someone more senior than them. I could completely understand this; after all during the early stages of my career when I experienced words or behaviours counter to my values I didn’t raise them either for the same reason.
Firms need a culture where no issue is too small and no person is too senior
That’s why, since 2015, we have focused so much on culture at Deloitte – ensuring that we really do provide employees with an inclusive working environment, underpinned at all times by respect. This has meant setting a clear tone from the top, being very clear on those behaviours that were unacceptable and creating safe ways for people to speak up without fear of penalty. It has also meant a zero tolerance approach to behaviour that is found to be counter to our values.
To me, bullying and harassment is a spectrum: it might be a throw-away comment, it might be dressed up as ‘banter’ – yet for me and for my firm it’s still completely unacceptable. And our people need to feel able to call it out.
We have made clear that no-one, no matter how senior, is above our expectations on behaviours. This has meant removing people from the business where necessary. Our transparency on such action has been critical in building trust amongst our employees.
Ensuring voices are heard
Critical to our approach has been establishing additional routes for our people to speak up and ensure that they feel safe in doing so. This has been accompanied by consistent messaging – and action – from the top of the firm. This issue is not owned by HR – it is owned by the firm’s leadership and they have been vocal about it.
Our people know that they now have a number of routes to raise concerns – and that no issue is too small. The firm’s Respect & Inclusion advisors – established in 2015 – are a critical part of this. They are people at senior levels of the firm who will listen to any issues and talk our employees through possible courses of action open to them. For those who don’t want to raise a concern via this route (or via HR), we have evolved our confidential ethics whistleblowing line into one that explicitly includes any reports relating to bullying and harassment. This is run by a third party and all issues raised are investigated by the firm.
The Women & Equalities Committee is considering whether additional regulations are necessary to prevent the misuse of confidentiality clauses. I would welcome any changes, regulatory or otherwise, that can support employees. But it’s important to remember that people will only speak up if they feel protected and that’s not just about policy and legislation – it is about culture within an organisation.
Emma Codd is managing partner for talent at Deloitte UK.