Sex, drugs and HR’s role: how workplaces turn toxic – and how to stop it

Dozens of prominent British businesses have recently been accused of failing to deal with infractions from sexual harassment to drug use. Raconteur surveyed UK workers to find out what they really think about bad behaviour at work and how their bosses are handling it

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When Ella* started a job at a top London design firm, she was hoping for “unicorns and rainbows”, she says. But it wasn’t long before a colleague warned her about the company’s CEO.

Three female employees had made sexual harassment complaints against him; all had been forced out of the company soon after. “Just be careful, because there are stories,” the co-worker said.

Although he never crossed a line with Ella, the CEO’s creepy behaviour soon became obvious. “He would put his arm around girls’ waists,” she recalls. “He would not be bothered learning people’s names, unless they were blonde women… So I would keep my distance.”

It was an open secret in the office, creating such a bad atmosphere that Ella quit less than 18 months later.

Her story, sadly, is far from an outlier. Almost every week in 2023 has brought fresh revelations about bad behaviour in blue-chip British workplaces, from gropey bosses to cocaine-fuelled boat parties.

Bad behaviour in British business

Most recently, McDonalds admitted it had “fallen short” in dealing with reports that dozens of its workers had been groped, sexually harassed and racially abused at franchised stores across the country. Last month, hedge fund manager Crispin Odey was ousted from the firm he founded after allegations he sexually harassed employees. ITV’s flagship breakfast show This Morning was also accused of harbouring a “toxic” working environment that hushed up presenter Phillip Schofield’s affair with a much younger colleague. 

Then there was the CBI’s implosion following sexual assault claims, deputy prime minister Dominic Raab resigning due to bullying accusations and Tesco’s chairman stepping down over ‘inappropriate behaviour’, to name but a few.

Why do people feel they can get away with it in an era when awareness of these issues has never been stronger? To find out, Raconteur surveyed 1,000 nationally representative workers in partnership with Attest, a consumer research platform based in London and New York. 

The survey revealed employees still feel discomfort when it comes to reporting even the infractions they deem most severe. For example, although the majority of respondents agreed sexual harassment was the most inappropriate behaviour at work, less than 40% would be ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ comfortable reporting it to management.

In fact, for every infraction except bullying or intimidation, people were more likely to feel uncomfortable reporting it than comfortable.

Why workers don’t report bad behaviour

Experts suggest that this reluctance to report is often down to a fear of potential repercussions or even retaliation. The professional and social consequences of speaking up, such as damaging relationships or reputations, keep people silent. 

Andy Whiteaker, an employment partner at Reading-based law firm Boyes Turner, says younger, newer or more junior employees may not want to “rock the boat”, while people from under-represented backgrounds can be reluctant to challenge the behaviour of the majority.

It may be especially potent in competitive industries or workplaces, as Ella found. “If you talked about it, you were let go… People were scared about the future when it comes to recommendations and feedback. In my industry you bump into the same people all the time. If you want to be successful, you have to be very careful.”

If people witness that those speaking out have their reputation damaged, they learn not to say anything

Particularly bad actors can exploit this to create networks of intimidation and discredit people who complain about them, says Dr Holly Andrews, who researches the ‘dark side’ of work culture at Henley Business School. “If people witness that those speaking out have their reputation damaged, their position in the organisation becomes more tenuous, then they learn not to say anything.”

The Financial Times described Odey, for instance, as “domineering”, reporting that he used his powerful position and deep pockets to intimidate women and other employees into overlooking his actions.

But Maria Campbell, chief operating officer at fintech Griffin and former head of people at Monzo, says that even in less extreme situations, a reticence to speak up about bad behaviour is not uncommon. The fear may be about being seen as a “spoilsport”, meddling, or simply not a good fit with company culture. 

That is amplified when the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour may not be clear-cut, especially when employees are witnessing incidents rather than experiencing it themselves.

“If someone may or may not be making someone else feel uncomfortable with their behaviour … and the perpetrator is your boss, for example, it then becomes a really sticky interpersonal situation to navigate,” she says.

It’s difficult for HR policies to capture all the nuances, particularly when it comes to consent – a hug for example, can be appropriate between work friends but not when forced on someone junior by a manager. Likewise, it can be difficult to draw a line on behaviour such as excessive drinking.

In certain workplaces, inappropriate behaviour may become so commonplace that people no longer even notice it. When everyone is taking drugs at work events or a certain member of staff is always the butt of jokes, it might become hard to think of these things as infractions at all. 

Kate Palmer, HR consultancy director at employment law firm Peninsula, says the word “banter” is often used in these situations. “What one person perceives to be sexual harassment, another may not and say that they were just having a joke.”

As a result, it’s common to under-identify inappropriate behaviour – it might only be months or years later that someone realises they were bullied or discriminated against.

What managers get wrong about handling reports 

But even when issues are recognised and reported, it’s far from guaranteed that managers will deal with it effectively

For example, former CBI employees accused it of “mishandling” reports made about senior figures at the organisation. In one instance reported by The Guardian, an employee said she was told by a manager to seek out therapy rather than escalate her claim that she was raped at a CBI event. Both Ikea and McDonald’s have recently been told by the UK’s equality watchdog to improve how they deal with sexual harassment at their stores.

Raconteur’s survey revealed few workers think their bosses handle complaints well. Just 13% said their managers are ‘very good’ at dealing with allegations of inappropriate workplace behaviours, while almost a third said they had been ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ bad. 

David Liddle is an expert in managing workplace conflict and president of the People and Culture Association. He says it’s common for leaders to fail to “nip issues in the bud”, letting small problems escalate. 

“Managers are often too ‘busy’ to tackle issues, they don’t have the confidence or the competence. But because they ignore them or they don’t respond effectively, those times when people do speak up and a manager doesn’t act on it gives tacit licence to the wrongdoer to continue their behaviours.” 

Sometimes the manager becomes the problem by becoming bullish, confrontational or aggressive

But overreaction can be just as bad. “Sometimes the manager almost becomes the problem by becoming bullish, confrontational or aggressive. When it’s really bad, there’s a lot of confusion and anxiety, people become very suspicious of managers and leaders. It can get pretty tangled up and toxic.”

Experts agree that creating a positive ‘speak up’ culture is vital to ensure that workers know if they report issues at an early stage managers won’t overreact, but won’t ignore it either. HR policies are only as good as the paper they are written on – and must be backed up by action.

“It is not enough to put on a show of simply taking a stance against unacceptable behaviour. Employers must also be prepared to follow through and act against those responsible,” advises Whiteaker.

He adds that failing to act on a complaint can itself be deemed discrimination. In some cases, employers have successfully argued that the full liability should fall on the shoulders of the manager who overlooked it, rather than on the company.

Those responsible for HR should also make sure they do not minimise unpleasant experiences. Something does not have to be the “worst” example of bullying, discrimination or harassment to be worth taking action over. “You need to not let the smaller things slide as well. Like, ‘Let’s not joke about taking people to a strip club in the office,’” Campbell says.

“People in leadership positions and positions of power do need to intervene when they witness something and empower other bystanders to do the same.”

Happily, almost half (42%) of respondents said their first reaction to seeing misconduct would be to report the incident to superiors, while a quarter said they would do so anonymously. Only 3% admitted they would “do nothing and ignore the misconduct”.

Another positive note in the data? Those in gen Z (aged 18 to 24) were the most likely group to say their managers had been adept at dealing with accusations. Palmer believes this might reflect that businesses have improved how they handle complaints. “The ramifications of not doing so are so serious,” she says. “In the backdrop we’re in economically, the last thing you want to do is mess up an HR case.”

*Name changed