July 8, 2020
In a post #MeToo world, some senior leaders are learning the hard way that the world has changed once and for all as employees rise up against corporate platitudes that are not followed by meaningful action.
Take AMP Limited, for example. Last month the 170-year-old Australian publicly listed company announced the appointment of Boe Pahari as the new Chief Executive Officer of a large arm of the business, AMP Capital. An internal appointment, Pahari transferred from AMP’s London office to run AMP Capital in Sydney.
On Pahari’s first day in the role, The Australian Financial Review published the first of a number of articles that detailed Pahari’s history with AMP including the fact that he had been accused of sexual harassment earlier in his career. Not decades earlier, but in 2017 while working in London.
An independent workplace investigation led by a British QC, Andrew Burns, upheld the allegations of sexual harassment and Pahari was financially penalized for the behavior, according to reports in The Australian Financial Review.
The case then followed a familiar path. A man accused of sexual harassment remained in his job and was ultimately promoted. A woman who was harassed left the organization and was silenced through the signing of a non-disclosure agreement.
Over the past two weeks women (and it has been primarily women) within AMP Limited have called for meaningful change. According to reports in The Australian Financial Review, women have been reported in internal AMP meetings as saying “Words are not enough. What tangible actions are actually being taken to fix this?”.
AMP Limited states on their company website that one of the three behaviors that define its culture is the expectation that employees “act with purpose and respect.” It is not a leap to see why female employees at AMP would assert that these same behaviors are not genuinely demonstrated when it is expedient to put profits over purpose.
According to The Australian Financial Review, Chairman of AMP Capital, John Fraser, confirmed that internal female candidates were considered for the role of AMP Capital CEO but ultimately Pahari “made a lot of money for the company and his employees” and the Board was “unanimous about appointing Pahari because of his track record.”
The saying “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” seems appropriate at this point and it also appears to be the point female employees of AMP have been attempting to raise during internal meetings as well.
As soon as a company’s values are compromised for other expedient reasons, whatever those reasons might be and regardless of how talented/indispensable/valued the person in question may be, trust in company values to have any real meaning is weakened.
Suddenly values simply look like words painted on a wall.
The Chairman of AMP Capital views on allegations of sexual harassment were also revealing. He shared these views in a podcast interview with recruiting company Blenheim Partners earlier this year.
In the podcast, Fraser said that he takes “mature” female secretaries with him to social functions and they would “just stay within about a meter because things happen. You know, you can be accused of stuff.”
Fraser went on to say “I would just make sure that when I was at these functions I would be with people I trusted to make sure that if anybody made false allegations against me or the people I was with, I would have someone to provide contrary evidence.”
Given evidence of false claims of sexual harassment in the workplace is so low, it is remarkable that Fraser thought such precautions were necessary. Such a position clearly misunderstands the trauma and backlash that any woman who bravely steps forward to speak about sexual harassment confronts.
The woman at the center of the Pahari case is evidence of how fraught it can be to make a sexual harassment claim. She no longer works at AMP. The man found to have harassed her does and has been promoted.
A landmark report called Respect at Work : Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report was released this year by the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins. The report was the culmination of a world-first 18-month National Inquiry, which examined the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, the drivers of this harassment and measures to address and prevent it.
Jenkins makes the point in the report that for employers to create safe, gender-equal and inclusive workplaces it will require transparency, accountability and leadership.
At AMP Limited, the decision to promote someone with a history of sexual harassment to one of the most senior roles in the company, in breach of the company’s espoused values of respect, would seem to fail these tests of transparency, accountability and leadership.
There will be a view among some that Pahari has already been punished given his behavior was investigated and he was financially penalised for his actions. Pahari has made a statement apologising for how his comments to the woman in question had made her feel uncomfortable and he has expressed his regret for his actions.
Some may ask whether he should continue to be punished for a mistake for the rest of his career. It is easy to have empathy with that view – everyone deserves a chance at redemption.
The challenge is, however, that if someone chooses to sexually harass a colleague in the workplace – and every comment we make or behavior we demonstrate is a choice – then that person should expect serious, meaningful and long-lasting consequences that may end their career. Being harassed most certainly has serious and long-lasting consequences for the victim.
As one AMP Limited employee is reported in The Australian Financial Review to have said “Action talks, not fluffy words.”
#MeToo has changed our workplace cultures forever. It is no longer sufficient to say you value diversity, respect and gender equality and then walk past those values when it is expedient to do so. The sooner organizations and their most senior leaders realise the rules have changed for good, the better for all.