Stand Up to Bullying and Harassment

Published: 25 Sep 2019

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Who better to invite back to speak at the Dive In Festival about bullying than former England international rugby player and ally Ben Cohen? Hugh Brennan, CEO at festival sponsors, Renaissance Re opened the event with fond reminiscences of Ireland/England rugby world cup matches as he welcomed Ben back to Lloyd’s in his capacity as founder of the Stand-Up Foundation against bullying and harrassment.

Regular festival goers will recall that Ben first spoke at the second Dive In festival back in 2016. He recounted the circumstances that had inspired him to start the Foundation, the loss of his father in a violent attack as he tried to protect a stranger and the subsequent effect it had on his life and career.

Speaking about that time, Ben told the audience he was a ‘terrible’ sports player at school, but how through great coaching and ambitious goal setting, he was effectively mentored through his career to unleash his full potential, achieving both objectives to become the best player in the world in his position and playing at international level.

He spoke about as a kid, feeling at times that he was being passed over for selection because he wasn’t wearing ‘the right socks’ which denoted kids from public schools with a strong rugby tradition. But he persevered and overcame the barriers, picking up techniques on the way such as the communication acronym for on-pitch decision making pressure, ‘T-Cup’ (Think Correctly Under Pressure).

When a fan contacted him and explained that Ben had become an icon amongst the LGBT community, he realised that he could use his position as a ‘celebrity’ to take a stand against bullying. He has witnessed plenty of bullying behaviour during his career, both on and off the pitch and the injustice of it, along with the experience of losing his father so tragically to violence, inspired him to take action.

Following Ben’s talk, Debbie Ramsay of the Good Corporation was invited to take up the thread to expand on the business context for bullying and harassment at work. She set the scene by sharing the purpose of the Good Corporation: to help companies design and build an ethical culture.

Debbie explained the methodology they employ in first assessing the culture at a new client company, going on to benchmark it using their proprietary data. She showed how most companies they assess have codes of conduct, many have clear disciplinary procedures, but the picture changes markedly when it comes to speak-up policies and practices.

She went on to illustrate her points further, referencing case studies from the BBC which commissioned two reviews (after the Jimmy Saville scandal). Across the Good Corporation’s work they have found some common attributes in organisations which they are called in to advise:

A “rock star” culture in which certain people are seen as key to success and therefore immune to criticism or sanction

An organisational structure where staff from separate entities work alongside each other without oversight of the parent organisation

  • An environment in which harassment is subtle, gradual but constant, often on the right side of a sanctionable “incident”
  • A workplace where managers are prone to ‘gaslighting’ staff who complain into thinking their concerns are based on sensitivity or lack of resilience
  • An “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality: bullying and harassment become the norm
  • A working environment where staff are reluctant to make a fuss and management are reluctant to act

Following Debbie’s presentation, Kennedy’s Managing Partner Suzanne Liversidge, joined her and invited Ben back onto the stage along with Lloyd’s CEO, John Neal, for the last part of the event – a chance to discuss with the audience, the themes that had been presented. Suzanne shared her own experiences with the audience of having worked in a culture in her earlier career where a bully who resented her and acted badly was not sanctioned effectively by leadership, despite her courage in speaking up. This led to her making the decision to leave to go find somewhere with more committed leadership and a culture where she could thrive- in a classic example of talent being lost to an organisation not practising effective, inclusive leadership.

The four speakers made a difficult subject feel relevant and accessible and above all kept the audience more than engaged with great storytelling and good humoured banter while sharing powerful personal stories and examples of practical and professional best practice.