Controlling sexual harassment in the workplace starts during recruitment

A legal recruitment veteran advises on how law firms can address inappropriate workplace behaviour early

Controlling sexual harassment in the workplace starts during recruitment

Controlling sexual harassment in the workplace starts during recruitment, and firms must be willing to implement initiatives that address inappropriate workplace behaviour early.

Vicki Kennedy, executive general manager at Your Call and Clarity group, believes that being careful during the hiring process contributes to establishing a safe culture within the legal industry.

“To reduce sexual harassment in the legal sector, firms need to take a proactive approach to create a safe culture and environment for their staff, and this should begin at the recruitment stage,” she said. “Failing to set clear standards of what is acceptable behaviour from the outset can result in poor behaviour becoming normalised and a lot more difficult to address down the track.”

Kennedy, who has operated in the legal profession as both a commercial litigator and legal recruiter for more than three decades, has assisted organisations on matters involving workplace behaviour and misconduct, personal injury investigations, and whistleblowing. The sector, she said, has “a lot of work to do in order to address the pervasiveness of sexual harassment that exists.”

However, “structural changes to the ways firms operate, including in the recruitment process, have a lot of potential to create meaningful positive change,” Kennedy said. One such initiative is to “rethink the ‘cocktail party tradition’.”

“It’s common practice in legal firms to hold dinners and cocktail parties as part of the recruitment and screening process, but these practices can set the wrong tone for graduates and risk encouraging inappropriate behaviour that can feed into a wider culture of sexual harassment and misconduct,” she said.

While Kennedy acknowledges the value of social events to business development, she believes that clerks and graduates should not be required to attend as an aspect of the hiring procedure.

“Rather, this should be treated as a congratulatory or welcome event once they’ve begun working in the firm,” she said.

The existence of a power imbalance within law firms can also facilitate the exhibition of inappropriate workplace behaviour, especially towards new graduates.

“Legal graduates experience significant business development pressure from the outset to secure work for the firm via networking,” Kennedy said. “In many cases, this exacerbates the pressure graduates feel to “impress”, leading to situations where the power imbalance that exists between young and more established lawyers can be exploited and putting graduates in positions of vulnerability.”

Finally, firms need to recognise the importance of conducting proper reference checks on prospective hires.

“Firms should treat reference checks as a compliance aspect of the recruitment process—without calling all referees and asking a predetermined list of questions, the process shouldn’t be considered complete,” Kennedy said.

One way firms can obtain the full picture of a candidate’s behaviour and performance is to provide assurance to referees through the signing of confidentiality agreements.

“Referees are far less likely to be candid when providing a reference if they feel their feedback will find its way back to the applicant, or if they fear what they say could negatively impact their own firm’s reputation if made public,” Kennedy said.

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