Sexual Abuse – Leaders, hiding your head in the sand won’t help

Sexual Abuse – Leaders, hiding your head in the sand won’t help


This week the BBC ran a story on its Newsbeat site ‘Ex-student sues Cambridge University over harassment complaint’.

‘A former student says she’s suing the University of Cambridge over the way it dealt with her harassment complaint.

Dani Bradford, 21, says she’s taken the action because she “wants things to change for other students”.

The university upheld a complaint she made about being sent “sexualised” text messages – but Dani isn’t happy with the way it handled her case.

Cambridge University says it “takes the personal safety of its students very seriously”.’

The concerns raised by Dani Bradford for her ongoing support and welfare after the event are without doubt wellfounded and reasonable. The has the right to continue to study in an environment that provides the support and reassurance that she needs. The trauma faced by people in her situation is both very real and substantial. It is also very common.

Our minds then turn to the University of Cambridge. There’s no reason to doubt that they take the personal safety of students very seriously.  But like most institutions, likely there is much more that can be done, even if they already meet all central and local government requirements and adhere to commonly understood standards in this area. Reliance upon often outdated regulation, guidelines and risk assessment that are often not fit for purpose can leave organisations woefully exposed if they are ever brought before a Judge.

Unfortunately, such stories are all too common, whether it is related to workplace harassment or in this case within an academic setting. Every day far too many people are having to say #metoo for the first time as they just joined the ranks of those who have been abused or harassed.

Protecting students through preventative measures such as education, the setting of standards and expectations as to what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behaviour, developing the concept of permission-based interaction and developing healthier cultures and behaviours all need more work.  …and we don’t mean a knee-jerk intervention by the anti-fun police.

But there is more these organisations need to do. Firstly they need to get this right for the people over which they have a duty of care. That includes the students, their lecturers and the wide variety of academics, staff and third-parties working at, visiting or simply passing through a universities premises.

Then there is the need to get it right for the organisation or institution. This article focuses on Universities, but the exact same scenario exists within any public or private sector institution.  Get it wrong and there are significant financial, legal and reputation risks to the organisation.  Those doubting this, only have to look at the impact of not being in control of sexual harassment for organisations such as the UK Parliament, Stanford and Uber. Stanford, that hallowed of institutions found global notoriety in January 2015 with the now infamous Standford Rape Case.  One of the key reasons they struggled to get their London license renewed was because they weren’t seen to be protecting their passengers or responding to complaints sufficiently. The Mayor Of London took action in this case, and if such an action plays out badly it can still cost billions.

So in this day and age, where transgressions can go viral and can be reported on within minutes by any number of news institutions global it is important to be able to demonstrate that you’ve done everything reasonably possible to protect those that you have direct or even indirect responsibility for.

It’s no longer good enough to rely on the old line ‘…. takes the safety of its staff and ….. very seriously’.

Quite simply as an organisation you have to be able to demonstrate that you’ve done everything possible and can back this up by demonstrating that you have educated, challenged and changed processes, tracked, monitored, responded to complaints and had independent decision making of issues and scrutiny over what you have done.

Whoever is responsible for risk in your organisation and you should have a Chief Risk Officer or equivalent, needs to have issues like this on the very top of their agenda. It’s time that they stopped trying to weather the storm, relying on insurance cover, recommending compensation and Non-Disclosure Agreements to victims, accepting such issues as a ‘cost of dealing with the public’ etc and look to address the real root cause. Asking why such problems occur and looking at the root cause will likely end up looking at Senior Management, Processes, Culture etc. It won’t be an easy process and will require many leaders to look carefully at themselves, but ignoring it is no longer an option.

And in a case such as that with Dani Bradford at Cambridge,  when something hasn’t gone quite right, you’ll need to be able to provide support and care to mitigate the impact, cost and trauma experienced and to help the people through and beyond the event successfully and positively for all parties concerned.  And you might just have to be prepared to write a pretty sizable cheque if you don’t – compensation, fines and repairing reputation damage, lost revenue etc don’t come cheap these days.

Partners such as Flexmind who have a deep understanding of mental health, risk, regulation and business processes provide the consultancy, advisory, educational and support services, including psychologists and sexual abuse specialists to help Universities, Businesses and the Public Sector work towards doing better for their people and better managing the risk to the organisation.  Contact us today to find out more about how we can help you setup up the right framework and start tacking sexual abuse head-on.

Brian Tancock
Director & Founder

Flexmind Ltd 


Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

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