10 April 1999
The suggestion that men think about sex every eight seconds has proved pretty spot-on this week. Given the recent high profile allegations of harassment involving City law firms, and the unfavourable publicity afforded to those involved, many of us can have thought of little else.
Apart from the obvious response - that a sector with an image problem like the law hardly needs this sort of press - it's been an interesting week. If nothing else, these 'sex shame' stories have been a poignant reminder that we're not quite living in the brave new world we thought we were.
For me, the most instructive aspect was not that this kind of thing goes on in law firms - the tabloids seek to convince me that there are few organisations where it doesn't. It's a couple of decades since Malcolm Bradbury terminally lampooned priapic higher education lecturers, but I am told that they still hit on freshers as if it were the 1960s. In show business terms that would, of course, be the 1760s.
I don't know whether it's any consolation, but my female spies tell me that sex pests are by and large a generic bunch and despite a rather touching belief in the infallibility of their discretion everyone knows who they are. But that's the thing about these people: they think charisma falls on 25 December.
Hang on though; to assume that the only victims of their particular brand of anti-charm are women is a form of discrimination in itself. From the US recently came news of a suit filed against Starbucks alleging male-on-male sexual harassment and sexual orientation discrimination. And nothing puts the tabloids in a warmer froth than the occasional story where a woman is cast as the aggressor.
Clearly, this kind of behaviour goes beyond the obvious complexities of gender politics. It might be "harassment" in a pub or in a bar, but at work, where relationships are inextricably linked with careers, not to mention income, it is bullying. End of story. And the thing about bullies is it's strictly equal opportunities; anyone can be one.
What comes through loud and clear is that this is not a test of a firm's HR policies (we all have those), but of its culture. And if one thing's for certain, the poison cloud that passes for culture in some firms will determine its response. Where some would be prepared to sacrifice their star players to clean up what can be a pretty offensive act, a few would rather sacrifice their soul. In which case the message comes straight from the top, that if there is a principle at stake, it is the profit principle.
Of course, giving up their top earner is something few firms do without a long, dark night of the soul. But the news for any firm not prepared to deal with this problem is that it's the beginning of the end anyway. The loss of a top billing bully may be devastating for your margin, but if you really cannot bear to lose them, say goodbye instead to any cultural values you had and, it should be said, a good few people - the ones you'd really rather keep. Of course, with the sort of publicity you'll get, you'll probably attract a whole lot more and this is just the kind of shrewd recruitment drive they like. Sex pests, racists, bullies - get your coats, you've pulled.
Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at email@example.com