I’m writing this following on from being part of a tough, insightful discussion set up by the Edinburgh International TV Festival. The Panel - TV: A Culture of Abuse - was a highly timely conversation, prompted by the recent high profile outing of some very unpleasant behaviour. It was stark reading - the survey conducted by the Festival and Channel 5 News, revealed that 71% of respondents have been bullied at work; 54% of people in our industry have been subject to sexual harassment and, more worryingly, 84% of them didn’t report it.
The danger is, as this all becomes yesterday’s gossip, and the endless news cycle moves forwards, the only change will be that people in the industry become a little more careful with their behaviour - no real lessons learnt. I think this would be majorly wrong, and miss the point that harassment of this nature is indicative of something larger, signposting a poisonous culture that allows such things to happen, that turns a blind eye to wrongdoing when it’s by the people we place on pedestals -those that we are supposed to emulate.
The TV industry needs to change, fundamentally, with regards to this issue. But it’s not a quick fix - massive punitive interventions only remove the most obvious culprits and push the behaviour behind the scenes. For me, there are three things that we need to get right in our organisations if we are to ensure we have cultures that do not tolerate harassment.
Firstly, the rules must apply to all. For far too long the TV industry has been guilty of tolerating inappropriate behaviour from the top performers, too afraid to lose them to challenge the problem. And this is a task for the leadership, not for the HR team. We, as leaders, should not delegate this work - to do so abdicates responsibility and makes it ‘someone’s job’ to fix harassment. It’s a simple statement that we enforce: ‘no one is allowed to do it… no one’.
Secondly, this should be an open, well understood issue that people both recognise in all its forms, and feel empowered to call out. There’s a great deal of harassment training in the market, some of it very strong. But to be really successful, companies need to own the agenda fully, and present it in ways that are meaningful for the organisation and its culture. There’s a clear extreme of behaviour that should never be tolerated and this needs to be articulated correctly, but without people feeling paralysed to act in human ways. We have to strike the right balance between supporting the culture we want and people love, and providing a work environment that feels safe - in all its forms.
Finally, and this is the big one, we need to recognise that a poisonous culture creates the harassment - not the other way around. Tackling the extreme behaviour is right, but stopping it forever requires a much longer-term look at the prevalent values and behaviours. This truly is ‘turning the oil tanker’ - taking a toxic culture and reversing it is a long and arduous task that will require shining lights into every dark corner of the company.
Where to start? My advice is to make the problem work for you - don’t make these things a secret, rather have an opinion on the recent surge in harassment call-outs. Use it as a way to leverage a conversation about what your company believes is right and begin a conversation that will yield far wider benefits.