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Financial firms must address sexual harassment 'cultural failings'

Tackling sexual harassment within the financial services industry will require cultural change from firms, from senior leadership down, an expert has said.22 Mar 2019

Financial services employment law expert Jon Fisher of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, was commenting on allegations made about the Lloyd's of London insurance market in a recent report, published by Bloomberg Businessweek. The publication spoke to 18 women, who described "an atmosphere of near-persistent harassment" centred on the Lloyd's exchange. The vast majority of people who work in the building are not Lloyd's employees.

Fisher said that Lloyd's had already recognised that "steps needed to be taken to address the culture in the insurance industry". Last year, it launched the 'Inclusive Behaviours Pledge' as a public commitment by insurers and brokers to "a culture where inclusive behaviours are the norm and where everyone is accepting of diversity".

"To date, over 100 organisations have signed up, promising that everyone will be treated with 'respect, courtesy and dignity', and 'in a manner free from discrimination and objectification'," Fisher said.

"Financial services firms have a commercial need to eliminate harassment from the workplace, in addition to the regulatory and legal imperatives. They will not be able to attract and retain top female talent unless they do so. Increasingly, they will also find that their clients will not do business with them if they have failed to implement the right culture," he said.

"This is not just a case of having a harassment policy which sits gathering dust on a shelf. Firms need to embed fairness and respect within their culture, and tackle any harassment quickly and effectively. This requires full and public support from the most senior people in the organisation," he said.

UK regulator the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has urged employees in the sector to report any complaints about workplace sexual harassment, regardless of any contractual 'gagging orders' put in place by their employer. FCA director Megan Butler wrote to the House of Commons' Women and Equalities Committee last year, confirming the regulator's view of sexual harassment as "misconduct which falls within the scope of our regulatory framework".

Butler previously told the committee that the FCA intends to use the senior managers and certification regime (SMCR) to hold financial firms to account for sexual harassment. The FCA also expects firms to take the behaviour of individuals into account as part of the 'fit and proper' assessment required under these rules.

Diversity and inclusion consultant Stuart Affleck of Brook Graham, which is owned by Pinsent Masons, previously urged insurers to conduct proactive audits of their current diversity and inclusion practices, allowing them to put effective strategies in place to 'future proof' their business and position themselves favourably for the anticipated developments in this area.