No Banter in the Boardroom

We were very keen to table a discussion topic at our Chair / NED lunch in December that would keep us away from Brexit but was equally high priority for Boards’ consideration. #MeToo and banter vs bullying seemed sufficiently topical and the general anecdotal contributions on the day proved this to be the case.

#MeToo, banter vs. bullying, mental health and gender and ethnic pay gaps, to list just a few sensitive issues that have moved up the corporate agenda in a relatively short period of time.

These topics must be addressed and a broad range of stakeholders are demanding action. Our question to the room was:

“As established NED's and Chair's, what role have or should you be playing, in supporting and advising your executive colleagues, to help in addressing these important issues? ”. 

There was no shortage of comments and personal anecdotes from our guests in response to the topic.

As an introduction, Leslie Hurst of the Siblu Group, shared with us a word of advice he was once given. These sensitive issues have generated a charged atmosphere, it can be so easy to commit a faux pas or simply be misinterpreted. The advice he was given, as a board member, was, the only time you are not on duty is when you are at home.

Diane Moore of MUFG Securities, pointed out that if you have been on the receiving end of unsavoury behaviour or comments, this will determine your levels of acceptance of it in the future. As a Director of a business, one has a responsibility to everyone in your organisation to challenge unacceptable behaviour whenever you witness it.

In support, Wendy Barnes of OCS Group, acknowledged that different people have different tolerance levels of what they are prepared to accept. So what is or isn't appropriate must be discussed and agreed by the Board and then exemplified across the organisation.

Steven Hicks of The State Bank of India, picked this up and emphasised that how Board colleagues behave towards each other is vital in portraying desired role models. Many non-board members are exposed to parts of board meetings and so it is incumbent on everyone to behave - this means “no banter in the boardroom”.

Brian Bender who, amongst other NED positions, chairs the London Metal exchange said his view is, the role of the Board is to set the culture, create the appropriate policies and provide a route for potential whistle-blowers.

Simon Laffin, of Flybe, picked up on whistleblowing, observing that it has become an enormous asset for a board, not just for financial reports as one would have expected, but increasingly in the reporting of harassment and bullying.

Dr Len O'Hagan, of Northern Ireland Water, referred us to the Financial Reporting Council's (FRC) requirements for Boards to report on “how purpose and values support strategy within a healthy culture”. This requires developing meaningful content on culture, to report not only on what the company has achieved, but also how. Len emphasised the question of how as another challenge for the board to consider.

As part of the FRC's research, it was suggested, in order for NEDs to lead properly on culture, it would take the average number of days served per annum from 15-20 to 30-40. This will have a big impact on the role, the level of involvement and the time commitment for NEDs.

John Barnes, of South East Water, referred to the original question specifically regarding “Banter”; his view is that even the use of the word banter is emotive in itself and suggests that using it as a descriptor should have a “health warning”.

'It's only banter', a new study by the Institute of Leadership & Management shows that banter needs to be addressed by employers as much as full-scale harassment and bullying. A survey of 1,000 people found 4 per cent have left a job because of negative banter and women are twice as likely as men to be negatively affected.

Andrew Leslie, of JD Sports Fashion, suggested individuals, especially older colleagues, should be even more vigilant and tuned in to what they say because what was once totally acceptable “banter” is no longer.

Sir Neville Simms, of Thames Tideway Tunnel, had a very interesting perspective he was able to share with us. He is Chair of an organisation which is only 3 years old. The forming and shaping of this company was happening whilst the issues being discussed today were increasing in prevalence. Ahead of this luncheon, he asked a couple of female executives to comment on the topic. Interestingly, one said that she had observed that whenever a woman was speaking in the boardroom, they were frequently 'talked over' by a male colleague. Another point was calls made to their in-house HR helpline were in the majority of cases to report bullying. Both of these prevalent in an organisation only 3 years old. His view is NEDs should now take responsibility for this.

One in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems. They are often a reaction to a difficult life event but can also be caused by work-related issues.

Richard Pennycook from the British Retail Consortium (as well as Fenwick's and Howden's), believes the #MeToo initiative is working - the mere fact we are discussing it today demonstrates heightened awareness. However Richard's belief is, if there is to be genuine equality we need to find ways of helping women progress through the corporate ranks. Addressing softer issues in isolation is just not enough.

The #MeToo spread virally in October last year as a hashtag on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

Susan Hooper, of Uber UK, suggested #MeToo and diversity should be considered as two separate issues. It has never been acceptable to abuse by virtue of having power; the #MeToo initiative has made it easier for people, including men, to raise the issue and be listened to. Diversity (and Inclusion) on the other hand can only be solved by strong leadership at Board level. “We will only achieve the targets of diversity if the senior members of Boards make the effort to change things ….and it is an effort because no-one like change”.

Companies may be forced to reveal their ethnicity pay gap under plans unveiled by the Prime Minister as minorities often "feel like they are hitting a brick wall" at work.

Patrick McCall, of Virgin Group, reminded us all that ethnic diversity had not been mentioned today. He likened the difficulty of discussing ethnicity in a group with only 10% representing ethnic minorities with asking someone to sit a physics A-level exam having never studied physics!

It is apparent from this discussion that NEDs are highly likely to be asked to become involved in leading cultural change. This will be a challenge as it will inevitably increase the time commitment to each of their NED posts.