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Half-Empty Offices and Christmas Parties Create Sexual Harassment Dread


Lucky Generals’ Helen Calcraft talks to Laura Swinton about new #TimeTo campaign and urges employers to renew their commitment to tackling sexual bullying in the ad industry

Half-Empty Offices and Christmas Parties Create Sexual Harassment Dread
The fizz of in-person collaboration. The flare of random, serendipitous encounters. The contagious wildfire of passion and excitement. The return to the office has re-ignited a lot of the positive aspects of working in the advertising industry - the camaraderie and stimulation that comes from being immersed in a community of creatives. But for 49% of the UK’s advertising and marketing industry, that spark has reduced to a damp hiss.

According to recent research from the steering group for anti-sexual harassment initiative #TimeTo (a co-venture from WACL, NABS and the Advertising Association), 49% of people working in the industry think that sexual harassment is more of an issue now that people are back in the office, creating a cloud of dread. 

For bosses, who might have thought that sexual harassment was an issue that had been more or less resolved or for whom it has slipped down the priorities list, the research is an eye-opening call to action.

Lucky Generals have been involved in #TimeTo since its launch in 2018, devising the original ‘Where do you draw the line?’ campaign. Now, in order to drive the message home and encourage people to re-engage with the issue after two years of fluctuating lockdowns, the latest campaign ends with a far firmer “It’s time to draw the line”. The chilling new film features a montage of empty offices and a voiceover of real (but anonymised) experiences shared with #TimeTo through their research.

Helen Calcraft, founding partner at Lucky Generals, says that she thinks her team have thought harder about the #TimeTo work than anything they’ve ever done before. And while the industry response to and support of the campaign has been strong, she and the team knew that the constantly shifting challenges posed by the pandemic meant that they’d have to push harder to cut through.

“There was a really good response in the industry, at the beginning of the campaign they did take this issue very seriously. And we just felt there was a risk that leaders would think: ‘well, we've got a lot of other issues on our plate, sexual harassment is a thing of the past and we don't need to worry about it’. So, the reason for doing this campaign right now is to make sure that no one is in any doubt that their employees and colleagues and staff members are concerned, worried, and indeed at risk,” explains Helen.

The #TimeTo research showed that remote working had reduced the opportunity for predation and harassment, particularly of physical form. Although there were still reports of inappropriate messages and conduct online, the group nature of video calls and work chat groups did act as a deterrent. What the team have found is that people are particularly worried that serial offenders may return to the office keen to unleash pent up aggression.

And while some agencies have called off their festive parties because of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant, other celebrations are going ahead. “There is a high level of emotion, people have been isolated and suddenly they’re back together and there’s a feeling that finally we can go to the pubs, Christmas parties and that atmosphere in the air of sociability and possible hedonism and this must not tip into sexually motivated bullying,” says Helen.

With that in mind, she says it’s a matter of some urgency that agencies take a zero-tolerance approach, laying out expectations and sharing clear recourses for anyone who does experience assault.

“We would be urging all leaders of companies in our industry to be communicating very clearly with their staff, particularly around industry events, or company celebrations for the festive season, that there will be a zero-tolerance policy. And we would strongly urge the leaders of all companies in our industry to do that. And to restate, and to remind people of the code of conduct, and also then, to be clear that anyone who either witnesses or experiences harassment must come forward. If they feel worried or anxious, they can find someone in the company to speak to, and also, they've got the facility to speak, in complete confidentiality,” says Helen.

To anyone in the position where they have experienced or witnessed victimisation and don’t feel they have somewhere to safely turn in their business, Helen signposts NABS and their advice line.

It’s not just the Christmas party season that has created a hotbed for bad behaviour - Helen notes that the hybrid return to the office has resulted in another risk factor. Low occupancy offices - particularly at the end or beginning of the week - means that predators may feel embolden, while those who have experienced sexual harassment in the past may feel less safe.

Indeed, that’s the jumping off point for the new campaign, which floats a camera through an empty office as voice overs read out chilling experiences of bullying and assault.

“You could be in the office at five o'clock in the dark on a January morning and there could be six people in a 50-person office. So, predators have more places to hide, and even more opportunity with flexi working. I don't even know where that goes... That's embedded in the creative idea of the campaign; not only are we returning to the scene of the crime, we are even more vulnerable.”

One other factor worth bearing in mind is that there’s a whole new cohort of advertising industry recruits who have only known remote working. Working from home, they may not be aware of policies and resources around sexual harassment or may have an inaccurate, Mad Men-inspired view of appropriate workplace behaviour. 

Looking forward to 2022, with other potential risk factors on the horizon (such as the return of industry events and potential increase in work-related travel), it’s the perfect time for employers to re-acquaint themselves with the #TimeTo code and make sure that employees are aware of the code and the avenues available to them. Helen suggests that the #TimeTo training can help businesses set themselves up for progress.

“I think the priorities are to ensure that those people who are endorsing the code, are not just saying, 'Yes, we endorse that code', but actually really doing their part to really embed that code into their company cultures. So, we're looking at a range of strategies for helping our endorsing companies to do that, but also asking them to really take responsibility and play their part. So, it's a sort of two-way process really. It's no good writing a code, and then that code sits in a cupboard. And some vulnerable, 22-year-old, who's being harassed isn't even aware the code exists, and isn't aware of what to do if they are being harassed.”

And taking an even broader view still, sexual harassment and toleration of bullying in agency cultures is a talent retention issue. Helen reflects on her own experiences earlier in her career and says she’s got no doubt that toxic cultures and a lack of support for those who have been victimised is a factor in the so-called ‘talent crunch’. 

However, the good news is that #TimeTo represents an industry-wide coalition to tackle the cultures that foster sexual harassment. Though the return to the office has brought back some old challenges and created some new ones, #TimeTo and the Advertising Association are doubling down on their efforts to nurture a healthy and safe environment.

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Lucky Generals, Mon, 06 Dec 2021 17:16:58 GMT