What business leaders can learn from the Ted Baker harassment scandal

In the wake of Ray Kelvin’s resignation as CEO of Ted Baker following harassment allegations from staff, here’s how business leaders can keep their company free from “sexual innuendos” and inappropriate conduct

What business leaders can learn from the Ted Baker harassment scandal

In the wake of Ray Kelvin’s resignation as CEO of Ted Baker following harassment allegations from staff, here’s how business leaders can keep their company free from “sexual innuendos” and inappropriate conduct

Sexual harassment has been well documented in recent years. In a post #metoo world, corporations have come under scrutiny and an increasing number of employees are coming forward with their stories. Despite recent incidents like the Google walkout and the rampage of sexism allegations against Microsoft grabbing headlines, sexual harassment in the workplace still seems prevalent. 

Ted Baker has been one of the latest companies to come under fire. Founder and CEO Ray Kelvin resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct from employees, which included asking young female workers to sit on his knee, as well as massaging and hugging them. His departure came after employees launched a petition against Kelvin in December 2018 to stop Ted Baker’s policy of “forced hugs” and other harassment. The petition has over 2,700 signatures at the time of writing. 

One former Ted Baker employee who signed the petition said: “I think the petition is amazing. Something I thought about when I was working there but never had the guts to speak about. To be a part of this makes me feel like I’ve finally done the right thing, even it’s just a small contribution.”  

Alongside the arrival of the petition at the end of last year, Ted Baker and law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) launched an investigation into Kelvin’s misconduct, existing company policies and HR’s handling of staff complaints. HSF subsequently identified areas for improvement as the investigation concluded in April 2019 and the fashion retailer is renewing its policies as a result. A whistleblowing hotline and an enhanced oversight of people and cultural matters will also be implemented. Later this year, Ted Baker will be conducting a survey of their employees’ views on the company’s working environment to analyse the new policies and see if any new ones can be made.  

On the back of the findings from HSF, David Bernstein, executive chairman of Ted Baker, said: “We are determined to learn from this process and, moving forward, cultivate a better environment for all employees where they always feel respected and valued. We are implementing changes and improvements and are committed to developing best-practice HR policies and procedures that reflect the Ted culture we are looking to develop and enhance in the future.”

While sexual harassment scandals surrounding big businesses make headlines, employees from corporations of all sizes are affected. In fact, it’s becoming commonplace. 37% of UK adults are victims of sexual harassment – with everything from comments to assaults taking place – in the workplace or at a study location, according to a 2017 survey carried out by ComRes for the BBC. Of the 2,031 Brits surveyed, 53% of that had experienced sexual misconduct were female and 20% were male but 63% of the women didn’t report it and neither did 79% of the men.

So how can companies encourage more employees to report their experiences? After all, if nothing is revealed, the harassment can’t be stopped. Speaking with Elite Business, Victoria Myers, partner and head of abuse claims at solicitors Graham Coffey & Co, highlights the importance of remaining approachable to employees. “Make sure staff feel valued and appreciated – this will help to build a sense of community within the workplace,” she says. “A positive workplace drastically reduces the risk of unacceptable behaviour and sexual harassment.”

Aside from being approachable in handling sensitive complaints, Myers emphasises that employers must put as many measurements in place as possible to prevent inappropriate behaviour occurring in the first place, rather than as an afterthought. “Educate staff,” she continues. “Make sure all staff understand the type of behaviour that’s unacceptable, that it will not be tolerated and make clear the consequences of this type of behaviour.”

For Myers, a crucial element she points to is that businesses should create an environment in which workers can speak up if they’re uncomfortable with the way a colleague is acting. “Furthermore, employers should consider online sexual harassment courses for educational purposes,” Myers says, while the company should also have a comprehensive definition of sexual harassment as a preventative measure. “The complaints procedure and how the complaint will be handled should be highlighted,” she continues. “Preventing this type of behaviour is an important managerial responsibility.”

Helen Beech, partner at Clarkslegal, a full-service law firm, has a similar opinion on leadership as Myers. “Ray Kelvin set the tone for Ted Baker where hugs were part of the ‘Ted Baker culture’ but staff described them as ‘forced hugs’ which went unchallenged until someone was prepared to put their head above the parapet,” notes Beech. Emphasising Myer’s previous point about managerial responsibility, she opines: “Companies should first look to the quality of their leadership behaviour in order to create a culture free from harassment.”

Failing to recognise any grievances will ultimately mean any processes in place are just lip service and will cause employees to lose faith in the business, according to Beech. “The lesson for businesses is simple,” she concludes. “Look to your leaders – for an SME, that may be yourself – and if found wanting, seek change. Policies and processes are simply sticker plasters if you do not transform the culture.” 

Louisa Cook
Louisa Cook

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