Zelda Perkins on tackling harassment: "You just have to do it"

At Women Mean Business Live a panel discussed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and HR's role in stamping out harassment and bullying

Tackling workplace harassment isn’t necessarily about “better HR or reforming NDAs” but everyone taking responsibility and adopting a “zero-tolerance attitude”, according to theatre producer and campaigner Zelda Perkins.

Perkins worked as an assistant to now-disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein in the 1990s. She witnessed inappropriate behaviour and harassment and resigned when one of her colleagues accused him of attempted rape. In 1998 Perkins signed an NDA but has since spoken out about her experiences.

Speaking at The Telegraph’s Women Mean Business Live 2019 conference, for which HR magazine was official media partner, Perkins said: “It’s a fundamental right to work without being harassed or bullied, It’s not a question of how you [stop this from happening as an employer or HR professional], you just have to do it. If everyone started doing it and there’s a zero-tolerance attitude it will stop.”

Regarding how to approach a grievance in a way that protects the rights of both the accuser and accused, Perkins pointed out that the percentage of individuals coming forwards with vexation claims is “minuscule”.

“We’re looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope,” she said. “This whole culture of settlements doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“You could get malicious accusations but that shouldn’t be your first point in the process; we have to change the mindset,” agreed Kristina Combe, head of regulation and compliance at London Metal Exchange. “It doesn’t matter whether you [as a perpetrator of harassment] think you’ve done something wrong. If you’ve made someone feel like that you’ve done something wrong.”

Also speaking on the panel was Deeba Syed, senior legal officer at Rights of Women. She agreed that employers are still sustaining, and “operating in, a culture of disbelief.”

Women still frequently experience “victimisation” for reporting bullying or harassment, she said: “So they’re getting dropped off email chains, demoted, put on performance plans…”

She described how one woman she worked with was simply told to “drop the attitude”, adding: “Women won’t engage in a grievance process unless it’s serious stuff.”

Perkins suspected that many of the HR departments involved in harassment-related NDAs and settlements, such as the one she felt obliged to sign when she was 23, thought they were doing the right thing by both parties: “I think HR departments thought they were offering a solution; [so it was] ‘have some money, have some time, move on and it will all be fine…’”

This approach often leaves victims feeling they “can’t own their own abuse”, however, Perkins said. She said people don’t realise how long-lasting the trauma caused by such experiences can be. Many of those Perkins has met who have also spoken out about Weinstein have suffered mental and physical ill health and “strugg[led] to work at all” for some time afterwards, she said.

Perkins described how lawyers often pressure women not to speak out about harassment by describing the supposed impact this would have on their families. “When I signed that NDA the lawyers made it very clear my family would also be destroyed [if I spoke out],” she said, highlighting that this is why it’s often only women without partners or children who feel able to speak publicly about abuse.

She highlighted too how confusing the language used in NDAs often is. “If you walk away from an agreement thinking you’ll be sued even for talking to your family that’s what you’re going to uphold”, even if legally and technically this might not be the case, she said, referring to settlements that forbid victims from talking even to their friends and family – or even a therapist – about their experiences.

Those in leadership positions have particular responsibility to hold other leaders to account, Perkins said. “If you’re in a position of power you have a responsibility not to abuse that,” she said. “The person in a position of less power has always got to be taken seriously.”

Asma Khan, founder and owner of Darjeeling Express, agreed. She said that sadly in her experience female leaders are no more likely to call out bad behaviour among fellow leaders, and reported that the hospitality sector has a real problem still with bullying and harassment going unchallenged.

“I hear accounts of men slapping women, pushing women into fridges, groping them…” she said, adding that working in a high-stress environment such as a busy kitchen is no excuse.

“Men getting that stressed need to be taken out of the kitchen and given some therapy… You see surgeons going through very stressful operations but they’re not slapping the nurses,” she said, explaining that the difference is that head chefs are treated like “gods” because the success of the restaurant is seen to depend on them.

“We all have a collective responsibility,” added Combe. “There’s not a single person who doesn’t. We have a responsibility to empower as wide an array of people as possible to call this behaviour out.”