Philip Green: a convenient villain for confusing times

Philip Green: a convenient villain for confusing times

Ink’s HR Director, Ruth Johnson, suggests that the battle for equality won’t be won if our response to workplace wrongdoing is applied only in the interest of our own personal war.

Well, here’s a surprise.  Philip Green (sorry, ‘Sir’ Philip Green) is crass.  Who knew?  The Daily Telegraph investigation adds more than a little weight to a generally held suspicion that the man might possibly be a tad racist and sexist, and a bully to boot. 

It’s great that it’s all coming out in the wash, but I worry a little at the misplacement of the hysteria.  I don’t recall quite the same level of censorious reviling when the very same ‘Sir’ Philip betrayed a generation of his workforce by lining his own pockets in preference to upholding their pensions.  Call me old fashioned, but the detriment that these people have suffered – or, rather, will suffer when their retirement years are not affordable – significantly outweighs, in a very practical way, the offence felt by women belittled by their repulsive boss.

It’s right that Philip Green is being outed, and right that as a society we are agitating to demonstrate that we won’t tolerate workplace behaviour that is intimidatory, oppressive, and wrong.  But the lines between acceptable and inappropriate behaviour can be very marginal, and I would argue that we display our own prejudices when we opine on circumstances we know very little about.  It’s easy to dislike Philip Green (just as it’s easy to dislike Harvey Weinstein) but our outrage should not be delivered through the prism of unchecked bias.  Our outrage should be objective – based on fact, definition, and trust in the truth being found in law.  Philip Green has tried to gag his alleged victims.  That, in itself, is reason for outrage.  His Company failed to follow statutory process around grievance.  Again, reason for outrage.  BUT (and you probably sensed a but …) these victims took the money because, I’d argue, their own outrage could be diminished for a certain price.  Maybe we don’t need to feel too sorry for them.  Their service to us, and to a society that is striving to establish diversity and inclusion, should have been to insist upon due process, refuse the money, and blow the whistle.

I think it is unhelpful when the likes of Jess Phillips MP jumps on the proverbial hashtag and describes Green’s behaviour as “sexual assaults” and “criminal activity”.  Ms Phillips (who will very easily make judgements to uphold her apparent view that all men are beasts and all women are victims) disserves women and due process by pre-empting a conviction.  It may well be that Green is a criminal – but his crime would be fraud and there is no evidence of which I am aware that establishes that he is a sexual criminal.  He behaves appallingly, by all accounts, but we haven’t yet created a reliable framework to legislate against the loathsome.  They are here, there, and everywhere.  And as individuals we need to do our best to avoid them (for example, go work somewhere else), and as a society, we need to work harder to establish behavioural norms that are balanced, fair, and in the interest of the broader good.

I worry about the backlash from populist rhetoric and group think, and zeitgeist activism, and I see it, in fact, in my HR practice.  Increasingly, business owners fear for what they say and, indeed, they themselves are gagged by their over-caution.  They wouldn’t dream of grabbing a female colleague’s bottom, or racially disparaging a black executive (most employers, in my experience, don’t behave this way).  But they worry about the risks that certain demographics present to their business.  As an example: having thrown the kitchen sink at the maternity leave and pay entitlements of one, quite new, employee who then chose not to return to work, one client thought rather too long and rather too hard about employing another young woman who had recently got engaged.  Another example: an under-performer just so happened to have osteoarthritis and, when dismissed, tried to raise a claim for disability discrimination.  The case, rightly, failed, but the employer’s victory was pyrrhic because it cost £10,000.  Same result in a different guise; the Company then bent over backwards to find reasons not to employ a talented business analyst with a history of asthma.

Extremist views are dangerous.  Corralling Philips Green’s behaviour into the same pen where we see psychopathic rapists and supremacist clans who like to lynch is wrong.  It undermines the victims of these serious crimes – significantly – and then sets a course where people have to align themselves to the common perception of good (#) for fear of otherwise being thought of as bad.  The winds of change can then start to pick up and deliver cold and unpalatable repercussions.  The examples I give above, from my client bank, are relatively benign.  But when you look at what’s happening in America right now – the election of a President who looks and sounds very much like Philip Green; the phenomenal rise of the Alt Right movement; a Mexican wall that becomes day by day more of a reality – you need to step back and put the brakes on.  Revolutions only bring tears and suffering; we need to work harder at staying on track with evolution.

I’ll be delighted if The Telegraph’s campaign leads to a prosecution of Philip Green.  If he has broken the law with his use of NDAs then both he and his cowing lackeys will deserve all the opprobrium that will come their way.  People will understand, hopefully, that there are reliable mechanisms already established in law to deal with harassment and discrimination … and unless people deploy them we’ll never see the behavioural changes we need in order to create real and lasting equal opportunity.

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