Ted Baker's ‘forced hugs policy’: Lessons for other employers

The instance of Ted Baker offers some important lessons to other employers as they seek to update their approach in a post-#MeToo? era

One can only imagine what it was like for the HR department at Ted Baker last week, where the employee petition against a ‘forced hugs policy’ has focused much attention on the company’s culture.

The matter is currently the subject of a 'thorough and urgent independent external investigation' according to a company press statement released on 3 December. However, what is being said about the behaviour of the CEO and the effectiveness or otherwise of the firm's whistleblowing and anti-harassment procedures, not to mention the HR team’s own role in allegedly not acting on complaints, all point to an uncomfortable set of behaviours.

Quite whether this develops into an existential crisis for the company, it is too early to tell. But the furore created by the story does mark another salutary warning, if one were needed, that things will never be the same for corporate culture post #MeToo.

The Ted Baker scenario is perhaps an unusual and (if the allegations prove to be true) extreme example of what can go wrong. But it does offer some important lessons to other employers as they seek to update their approach and protect themselves from crisis in the post-#MeToo era.

So what can other companies and organisations learn?

- There can now surely be no doubt that the world has changed radically since #MeToo took off in October last year. Behaviour that people either accepted or turned a blind eye to in the past is now being called out and challenged, in some cases very vocally. These issues are not going away; they are here to stay.

- The law on sexual harassment is clear – it is not only unwanted conduct that has the purpose of violating someone’s dignity that is prescribed, but also conduct which has that effect. And the effect will be looked at from the point of view of the victim (provided it is reasonable for the victim to have taken the view that they did). Even one-off incidents can constitute harassment and there is no need for the victim to have notified the perpetrator in advance that the conduct in question is unwanted.

- Culture cannot simply be what the company would like to instigate. It must be appropriate for today’s modern workplace, and must be something that is shared and reinforced by all employees at all levels and at all times.

- Complaints channels need to be effective and yield outcomes. Issues can go external and reputations damaged if complaints are not dealt with properly and promptly.

- HR departments have a responsibility to monitor their organisation and step in when things are going wrong. If there are, for example, a series of incidents that cannot be overlooked or ignored, join up the dots; there may be an underlying problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

- All companies are at risk – old and new, large or small. It is not just apparently male-dominated City firms that can face issues. We have seen that so-called enlightened organisations, perhaps with a female dominated workforce, can too. Smaller dot.com businesses and family-run firms who think they are modern and progressive are no exception. All need to play to the new rules.

Employees have always had a right to be valued and respected at work, and to be in an organisation free from sexual harassment. But they've never been more aware of this right than now. We have seen an exponential rise in the number of harassment-related allegations in recent months. The Ted Baker story is but the latest example.

Company leadership teams, boards, HR departments and managers need to take note. Policies and procedures are all very well (many or even most companies and organisations have had these for years), but the prevailing culture is key. There has to be a clear expectation of what is ok and what is not ok in terms of behaviour at all levels. There must be an understanding of what falls the wrong side of the line. And the line is not necessarily where it used to be.

Richard Fox is head of the employment law team at Kingsley Napley