Us Too? IBA research reveals higher than average levels of bullying and sexual harassment in in-house legal teams

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke in October 2017, workplace sexual harassment has gained unprecedented public attention across the globe. Allegations of harassment and abuse have been levelled against hundreds of high-profile business people, including prominent figures in the legal industry.

Today, the International Bar Association (IBA) published its landmark report on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession. The report details the results of a global survey of almost 7,000 legal professionals from 135 countries, the largest ever survey of this kind. It provides empirical confirmation of what many have long suspected: that the legal profession has a problem with bullying and sexual harassment, resulting in highly-qualified professionals leaving the industry. In-house legal teams are far from being an exception.

There are high levels of bullying and sexual harassment in legal workplaces generally

The IBA’s research builds on its 2017 “Women in Commercial Legal Practice” report, which revealed high rates of inappropriate workplace behaviour affecting both male and female respondents in commercial firms.

The current project has a broader focus, and collected data from respondents across the spectrum of legal workplaces: law firms, corporations and organisations, barristers’ chambers, government, and the judiciary. The results indicate that bullying and sexual harassment are common in all types of legal workplaces.

Overall, one in two female respondents and one in three male respondents had been bullied during their legal career. This conduct took various forms, including the use of ridicule and demeaning language, overbearing supervision, and misuse of power or position.

Rates of sexual harassment were also high. One in three female respondents had been sexually harassed in connection with their employment, as had one in 14 male respondents. Common forms of harassment included sexual or sexist comments, being looked at in an inappropriate manner, and inappropriate physical contact.

In-house respondents report higher than average rates of bullying and sexual harassment

Reported rates of bullying and sexual harassment were higher among in-house respondents than the overall average.

The prevalence of bullying and harassment experienced by female in-house lawyers was of particular concern.

Female respondents working in a corporation or organisation were 8 percentage points more likely to have been bullied, and 9 percentage points more likely to have been sexually harassed than female respondents working in law firms.

It may be that some of these responses related to bullying or sexual harassment that took place in the law firms the respondents worked in before moving in-house. However, 32% of bullying and sexual harassment cases reported by in-house respondents included incidents taking place within the past year. This indicates that these issues are significant, ongoing problems in corporate legal teams, and are having a particularly negative impact on female employees.

Why does this behaviour happen?

Bullying and sexual harassment take place when legal workplaces are not doing enough to create a climate in which this behaviour is unacceptable and impossible.

Overall, only half of respondents’ workplaces had relevant policies and just one in five ran training. Incidents are chronically underreported, for reasons including the profile of the perpetrator, and the target’s fear of repercussions. Even when targets report the behaviour, workplaces are failing them. Perpetrators are rarely sanctioned and, in many cases, rather than solving the issue, reporting exacerbates the situation for the victim.

In-house teams are doing a particularly poor job of responding to reports of inappropriate workplace behaviour. Just 13% of in-house respondents rated their workplace’s response to a reported incident of sexual harassment as “sufficient” or better, the lowest percentage of any legal workplace. As one in-house respondent observed, “even if a company says all the right things, it’s very easy to be branded someone who is a ‘troublemaker’, especially if the perpetrator … is a senior member of staff”.

Stopping the “brain drain”: addressing these issues in in-house legal teams

Ensuring effective policy implementation and effecting cultural change should be a priority for in-house legal teams.

Alongside the moral, ethical and legal imperatives for the profession to act urgently on bullying and sexual harassment, the data also demonstrate a compelling business case to do so.

This research found that targets of bullying and sexual harassment were leaving their workplaces, and in some cases the law entirely, at an alarming rate. This “brain drain” reduces a workplace’s productivity and has troubling implications for the sustainability of the legal profession more generally.

65% of respondents who had been bullied and 37% of respondents who had been sexually harassed have left or are considering leaving their workplaces. Approximately one in ten have left or are considering leaving the profession altogether.

To address these issues, workplaces must implement effective policies and training programmes, and increase dialogue about bullying and sexual harassment within teams and the profession more broadly.

Articulating clear standards of workplace conduct through policies and training are important first steps in addressing bullying and sexual harassment. Survey respondents at workplaces with training were significantly less likely to have been bullied or sexually harassed within the past year. Yet the survey data indicate that less than a third of in-house legal workplaces offer bullying and sexual harassment training, and 19% do not have any policies in place to address this conduct. For an example of a relevant policy, see Practical Law’s Anti-harassment and bullying policy (short form).

While important, policies and training are not enough to combat bullying and sexual harassment without effective implementation and broader culture change. Once put in place, policies and training measures must be reviewed and monitored to ensure they are effective.

For further discussion of effective measures to combat bullying, see the full IBA report, which articulates ten recommendations to assist legal workplaces and the profession to combat these issues, as well as a more detailed analysis of the survey data. The recent LawCare blog Combating bullying in the legal workplace also sets out practical steps to take to combat bullying and harassment.

Find out more

The IBA will be hosting launch events across six continents. These events will provide targeted insight into the survey data, and an opportunity for attendees to engage with the IBA and local experts. The global engagement strategy will culminate with a showcase session at the IBA’s annual conference in Seoul, taking place between 22 and 27 September 2019. More details of these events can be found on the IBA website.

The IBA encourages legal professionals to get involved with these events, share the report and engage in dialogue about preventing and responding to inappropriate workplace behaviour. It is critical that we all take ownership of these issues and consider how, individually and together, we can eliminate bullying and sexual harassment from our workplaces. Change is hard, but it is possible – and urgently needed.

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