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Toxic workplaces and sexual harassment still common in professional firms

A top London-based financial newspaper refers to ‘a culture of fear at the world’s leading accounting firms’, hinting at the scale of the problem from which South Africa is not immune.
Strong, smart, hard-working – but ‘HR is there to protect the firm’, according to one of the victims the author spoke to. Image: Shutterstock

While chatting with a number of women about their torrid work experiences, I had to fight my own rising anxiety and anger, remembering some traumatic experiences many years ago. It is appalling that in 40 years nothing has changed. There are some corporate bullies – high fee earners beloved by clients – who reign supreme, trampling over anyone who has a different voice or a greater intellect.

This article focuses on women, but this doesn’t mean that men lower down on the professional ladder don’t get bullied as well.

More specifially, this article covers the experiences of women who work for professional firms in the legal and accounting space, where bullying and sexual harassment is rife.

This is not an exaggeration. An investigation by the Financial Times uncovered “a culture of fear at the world’s leading accounting firms”, as outlined in an article titled Betrayed by the Big Four: whistleblowers speak out.

Some women are still suffering from their experience, and I was not able to reach out to them. Others are fearful of having their careers curtailed, and wouldn’t risk chatting with me. Some matters are already in the legal pipeline and are therefore off limits.

The partners who bullied the women I spoke to are well-known.

These partners are high fee earners, and even if they are forced to step down, will be given the time to move to another firm, or into the corporate space, where they will maintain their position in society.

Read:

The victims

As for the women who speak out, who lay a complaint with the human resources (HR) department, or who take matters further to the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration), they will inevitably be forced to leave immediately.

No matter the quality of their work, no matter the fees that they bring in. They will be ghosted, and their future careers ruined.

Many victims will not make a fuss, and will leave at the first opportunity, never mentioning the abuse, not even in an exit interview. HR departments have already demonstrated how they will push the victim under a bus and rather protect the firm.

In reading the accounts of the victims below, one would be forgiven for thinking that they suffer from a persecution complex and are non-performers. Not so. They are clever, strong women, and leaders in their field.

When threatened, and gaslighted, anyone can crack.

One victim insisted that she is not a victim, and that she is over it. I asked, really – after you were forced to leave the career you loved?

Nefarious behaviour

A common modus operandi in building up a firm is to snap up someone who has built up a sizeable practice in a particular speciality, take over all their clients and contacts, and over the next year belittle them in meetings, shun them and ghost them until they are forced to resign.

It is not unusual for a senior partner to take over a new large client from the person being victimised. Or even all the clients.

You may be strong, but …

Putting up a fight can be time-consuming and harrowing. The partner will be able to send top attorneys to the CCMA, no doubt paid for by the firm. After all, the firm has to protect its image and its fee earning potential.

Is this a tax-deductible expense for the firm? Of course not.

If the firm is paying the legal fees of a miscreant, is this a taxable fringe benefit? Oh yes it is.

The men who bully or sexually abuse are narcissists, confident, outgoing, lacking ethics and empathy. They abuse because they can.

These men are often protected by their clients, who are very often in their social circle, part of the same old boys’ club.

Speaking up will result in the victim being ghosted by corporate SA. Apart from having their names rubbished in corporate circles, they will also become synonymous with ‘difficult to manage’.

Over drinks at the golf club or one of those long lunches, it is so easy to gaslight these women – ‘she is such an underperformer’, ‘her clients are unhappy’, she has a ‘misplaced sense of entitlement’.

Another victim put it this way: “If she tries to fight back, and go to the CCMA, the firm would close ranks and cover up … the woman who raises her voice will get squeezed out”.

Another said: “In short, I was bullied, demeaned, degraded”.

Virtue-signalling

Women’s Month activities should include standing up to toxic workplace culture.

It is somewhat galling that these very firms make a fuss around Women’s Day and Women’s Month, proclaiming to ‘celebrate the successes and strides that women have achieved in the workplace’.

The firms to which this applies should put an end to this meaningless virtue-signalling, and instead address the issue of their toxic culture.

Before they trot out profiles of women who have succeeded, perhaps they should look at the women who have resigned, or were forced to leave without any notice period.

Amy

“In a nutshell, it was a nightmare.”

Amy (not her real name) joined as a partner, was given no clients when she arrived, and had to source her own. With no assistance from her colleagues.

When she did find some clients, she was not allowed to visit them. One of her best clients was told not to contact her.

When a senior partner left, she was given all his clients – but she was charged with all the write-offs and all the revenue was recognised under his name.

The firm she joined “is a boys’ club, they play golf together, visit each other’s game farms”.

She was told that staff complained about her, but when she went to HR they knew nothing of this.

“It was a racist, sexist environment. I was a tortured soul. I was booked off for a month.”

Read: Sexual harassment in workplace is seen differently by men, women

Emma

After a lengthy period of not being able to take leave due to pressures at work, Emma (not her real name) put in for leave. The manager was sarcastic, accusing her of only taking leave when it was convenient to her.

Emma said the manager was always second-guessing her, an error would be amplified, and the knives were out constantly. She was loudly sworn at and accused of being useless at a company function by a very senior partner.

When asked about HR, Emma said HR is there to protect the firm. “It is complicit in covering up.”

Emma questioned how these men can have mothers, wives and daughters, but in the workplace they put this aside.

She asked if it is necessary to run courses on “how to survive the male ego”.

The triggers?

If a woman outperforms the men, the knives come out. It is worse if she earns the highest fees.

Some men bully because they can – and the stronger and smarter she is, the greater the satisfaction in demeaning her.

Not all victims go away quietly. Some have fought back, at a great risk to their careers. But they will rise again.

Slowly but surely, this toxic culture must be brought to an end. 

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I was in a different industry, but your article brought back some unpleasant memories, like having to step aside from a product training trip to Italy, so that the team could be made up entirely of men from the regional branches. I had to train the boss on the product before he left. When they returned, we were regaled with tales of their parties and escapades. It seemed very little training took place, and I was once again charged with product management.

Interesting what one can get away with commenting on this site, and yet I made a simple point that was censored: when Facebook engineers who happen to be female complain about whatever, I wonder how it is that such a first-world problem as a millionaire whose job is tough is something that gets treated as newsworthy.

I suppose the thing is, the professional woman is now a kind of a deity to us culturally.

If you feel that the rules of boxing do not offer sufficient protection, why get into the ring? It is the nature of animals to establish a hierarchy. It is the same with dogs, sheep, dairy cows, and humans. It is not about fairness to the individual, it is about the survival of the group.

We will experience power struggles whenever we enter a competitive environment. This is true for prisons, convents, church elders, and the workplace. This is where experience in martial arts is of great value, not the physical side, but the mental side rather. Martial arts is more of a chess game than a bar brawl. Your countermove is dictated by the opponent’s first move. The opponent reveals his capabilities, opens up, and loses his guard, whenever he moves. The focussed fighter uses this opportunity to score on his opponent, while he covers himself all the time. The inexperienced fighter makes many false moves. He takes unnecessary risks and tires himself out. Identify his weak points, wait for your moment and kick him in the groin, if the rules allow it.

The demeanor of the experienced fighter scares off the novices. The experienced fighter does not have to say or do anything. The others know his power by the way he moves.

This brings us to the point. Those individuals who act out of line and are first to antagonize, bully and disrespect others are novices, and weak themselves. They are opening themselves up for the counter-attack. This is a precious opportunity for the skillful player to rise in the ranks and to show the value of her self-control and self-respect. This is not where you disrespect or discredit your organization. The organization offers you the opportunity to enter into a mutually beneficial competitive environment. It is up to you to prove your respectability and interpersonal skills in that environment. If you don’t have it yet, just keep on training.

Seems like someone understands the art of war.

It’s all about the game.

I worked at a high profile firm where there were a number of ladies who had no shame in using their female charms to climb the career ladder…

This is definitely something that needs to be spoken about as well…

I agree. This needs to spoken about.

By the by – who are these women using their “female charms” on – other women or MEN? Why are they doing it? Is it because that is what is required or simply the art of warfare? Who indulges in these female charms, who rewards it and who sanctions it? It must be all those WOMEN/DEITiES ruling the corporate world!

It would certainly be enlightening to discuss this. Please let’s do!

I worked at a large investment company where a 30 year old was doing his thing with the CEO where she was 20 years his senior and getting promoted for it.

The entire office and beyond knew about it. Things were becoming messy, but they still kept at it.

Some people have no shame.

True of ALL companies… People judge the SA government but its the same thing in all companies – Nepotism and the “old boys” club – Pathetic really.

This article highlights nothing new it just tells us nothing has changed. Toxic cultures cultivated by people (unfortunately mostly by men as they have dominated senior decision making and influential positions) seems to have become the new norm (all is fair in love and war judging by some comments). Why anybody would think that bullying behaviour is simply a show of strength is indicative of the kind of society we have become – akin to the kind of abuse a woman faces when she is raped. Woman don’t want to be treated differently, they want to be treated fairly and with respect. Somehow this seems to be a difficult thing to expect. I would be interested to understand what advice fathers with daughters are giving. Is it shut it and man up, spread it and put out or get out? Because it seems standing up and calling it out sends the wrong message – DEITY! Really? Is it that messed up!

The corporate environment is neutral. Your experience is the manifestation of your attitude. How can I send my sons and daughter into the jungle if I believed otherwise?

“The truth is that the jungle is neutral. It provides any amount of fresh water, and unlimited cover for friend as well as foe – an armed neutrality, if you like, but neutrality nevertheless. It is the attitude of mind that determines whether you go under or survive. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ The jungle itself is neutral.”
— Freddie Spencer Chapman, a soldier left behind alone in the Malayan jungle.

You prompt the response: Don’t argue with an …… they will bring you down to their level and beat you with experience!

This article shows only one side of the story. Some women, in their anxiety to appear “assertive” (apparently a Good Thing), over-compensate and become downright unpleasant. Such an attitude would never be tolerated in a male, who would swiftly be taken aside and have matters explained to him. Unfortunately, the female offender is all too often just allowed to carry on, and on…

If only it were that males were actually as a matter of course taken aside and dealt with – we may not be having this dialogue. Yes, there are badly behaved females and they too must be dealt with – but the reality is that they are the minority. These women have been schooled to act like a man in order to be taken seriously and get respect.

Unfortunately, as much as it will anger male readers, toxic work environments are mostly (not always) perpetrated by men. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and nobody is asking for your agreement or confirmation (we already have your denial) but speak to your wives, sisters, mothers, daughters, girlfriends, sister-in-laws, female friends and colleagues etc. and hear for yourselves. Don’t defend – just listen.

Ah yes, the workplace is just the primary schoolyard all over again!

The children grow older, but not necessarily grow up.

At school, astute adults can intervene effectively in children’s misdemeanors, but in adult society this distinction disappears, and sociopaths are on more than an equal footing against the naive.

Sociopaths are a major dilemma for society.

On the one hand, sociopathy gives real operational advantages to any situation that requires decisive decision-making in urgent, ambiguous and troubled circumstances – especially where change is necessary, but resisted.

All major turning points in human history and society – for good AND bad – are due to the mental aberrants. And not the well-behaved, dutiful, sheep!

Executives and managers need to be assessed on a sociopathy scale. Such assessments need to be monitored by HR, and intervened on before work-relationship gets out of hand.

Knowing that these assessments exist in the prior records in HR (and would obviously surface in a disciplinary enquiry) will go a long way to ensuring an improved measure of self-control by bullies in the workplace.

Companies that harbour a toxic environment will not be at the top of their game and will perish to real competition.

The flip side of “sexual harrassment” is true as well.

A number of people that I have worked with at various companies have been falsely accused of harrassment.

I have also twice been accused of harrassment. It has become a convenient tool with which a competitive woman can tarnish male competition in the workplace.

End of comments.

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