Time’s up for tolerance of boorish sexist harassment?

Well that was quick. Presidents Club Charity dinner Thursday evening, FT exposé article Tuesday morning, club closed by Wednesday evening.

It’s a sign of the times. The FT has exposed an anachronism.

Culture is defined by what we tolerate and it is reshaped when we stop tolerating.

If you missed it, The Presidents Club is a ‘secretive’ philanthropic society of wealthy, influential men, that raises funds for charity. It’s annual all-male dinner ’n auction at The Grosvenor House Hotel last week was proudly introduced as “the most un-PC event of the year”. The all-women team of ‘tall, slim and pretty’ hostesses were required to wear very short dresses, very high heels, black knickers – and to go along with the groping and harassment that the guests apparently saw as part of the entertainment. Within a few hours of the article the outcry was so loud, that the club has now been disbanded.

A powerful symbol of what it used to mean to belong – the Gentleman’s club of the British establishment, respectability draped over salaciousness – has been shunned.

In previous decades a bunch of wealthy influential men at a party fondling waitresses and demanding they take off their knickers might have been fobbed-off as ‘just a bit of fun’, ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘OK’. Not now.

The public response: don’t even try and excuse yourselves, just No. This is way more than prurient outrage. The message is:

‘This is no longer tolerated.’

The journalist, Madison Marriage, has combined front-line research and clean writing with perfect timing. After the global tsunami of scandals of abuse, the red-carpet focus on #MeToo and #TimesUp, the sheer boredom of yet another establishment group being caught in sexist bullying was too much.

Harassment is no longer excused as entertainment. Charitable fundraising doesn’t give a free-pass of propriety. Great Ormond St, the Evelina Hospital, The Royal Academy of Music and other charities have returned the funds from the President Club.

The lesson is clear: When it comes to ethics and behaviour, conformity rules.

Behaviour that’s tolerated remains ‘normal’. And simply by not tolerating bad behaviour there is huge power to change the rules.

As much as through law, it’s by establishing conformity to different standards that society changes its culture.

The Presidents Club organisers, Artista, the agency who booked the girls, and the Grosvenor House Hotel, have all muttered about following a code of conduct,
If anybody still needs reminding, the formal code of conduct is irrelevant when the prevailing behaviour is so strong. People will comply with what is tolerated, following the example of leaders and peers, more than they will with the stated code.

But how much effort was made to ensure employees knew what job they were taking on, or to protect them at work?

How much enthusiasm has The Grosvenor House Hotel shown for upholding its stated ‘zero-tolerance policy’ on harassment of guests or employees?

Zero-tolerance was the public reaction. In an audible whoosh across Twitter, high profile business leaders and politicians denied they were present, or spluttered that they ‘left early’ – you could hear the cartoon whizz-sounds.

New boundaries of tolerance call for new codes of law.

The backlash has prompted an urgency to strengthen the formal code of law. Already several thousand people have signed a petition to reinstate the workplace sexual harassment law repealed in 2013. Section 40 of the Equality Act, which made employers liable for an employee being harassed by a third party – such as a customer if the employer did not take reasonable steps to prevent it.

There have also been calls for a change in law to end the gagging orders that stopped hostesses reporting harassment. MPs and public are now calling for the Met Police to investigate.

The Sun reverts to the old ‘rugby club dinner’ defence, and The Independent says, ‘The habits of the expense-rich sexist old boys network will die hard’. Maybe. But those old boys are running out of time: new generations have redefined the codes of tolerance.

Compare the speed of the reaction to this story to the slow waking-up to the horror of Jimmy Saville’s abuses – likewise under the cloak of “It’s all for charity”. This time the white blood cells of culture worked fast, attacking toxic behaviour and eviscerating reputations with an antibody’s ruthless effectiveness.

The apparently rapid reaction has been brewing for a generation. Way back in 1995 Judi Dench’s M famously dismissed James Bond’s lecherous stereotype as “A sexist, misogynist dinosaur”.

Has Ms Marriage delivered a coup de grâce to boorishness? Ah no, a body-blow maybe but that’s a resilient beast. But it is much less tolerated, and much less a mark of influence to join an event like the Presidents Club’s dinner.

Time’s ticking. The behaviour that you tolerate will shape your culture. Make sure the code of tolerance in your organisation matches your code of conduct, and is what you want to be proud of.

To organise a tolerance-test of your organisation’s culture, and to see how real codes of behaviour relate to your stated code of conduct, give us a call
0207 833 6420    chat@belongingspace.com    www.belongingspace.com