Everything you Need to Know About THAT Russell McVeagh Report

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So it happened. The findings of the much anticipated independent inquiry into the allegations of rape, sexual assault, and harassment at Wellington’s Russell McVeagh office were released on Thursday morning.

Since its release, the takes have been coming thick and fast: Editorials, columns and broadcast segments are everywhere. But opinions seem to be relatively shared: It’s not good enough. 

Why? Well, Morgan Tait has scoured all the reports to bring a big ol’ Best Of wrap together for Stored readers. She read everything so you don’t have to. You just have to read this.

 

Conducted by Dame Margaret Bazley, the report made 50 recommendations and some pretty telling findings.

Recommendations which Justice Minister Andrew Little will be looking at closely, and then likely looking even more closely at the Law Society.

Fifty is quite a lot, so we have condensed Newsroom’s excellent coverage into some bullet points - but you can read their full reporting here.

  • RM has "a 'work hard, play hard’ culture that involved excessive drinking and in some cases crude, drunken and sexually inappropriate behaviour”.

  • The sexual harassment claims from 2015 and 2016 consisted of:

    • The first occurred at RM’s work Christmas party in December 2015. Four female summer clerks said a drunk male partner touched their bottoms, waists or breasts.

    • At a smaller team xmas party later that month, there was a case of “inappropriate sexual conduct” by the same partner at his house.

    • In Jan 2016, the same partner went to drinks with some solicitors and summer clerks. There was a “reported incident of inappropriate sexual conduct” by one of the male solicitors.

  • All the complaints were handled poorly, with no formal investigation into the first two. The solicitor involved in the 3rd was neither suspended nor stood down while an internal investigation took place.

  • The four clerks involved in the 1st incident were not offered counselling support.

  • When the male solicitor left the firm after the investigation, he sent an email describing his move as a positive, and RM sent an email farewelling him which some described as “glowing”.

  • Bazley said the incidents were handled poorly. RM's workplace harassment policy wasn't followed, was inadequate, and an independent, external investigation should've been triggered.

 
 Dame Margaret Bazley presents the findings of her independent review in Wellington. Photo/Newsroom

Dame Margaret Bazley presents the findings of her independent review in Wellington. Photo/Newsroom

 

"Savage" findings: More action required

The findings have been described as “savage” by one ex-RM employee and employment lawyer, Steph Dyhrberg.

She says the power dynamics of the firm - where those at the top benefit enormously from the relentless hard work of those at the bottom - incentivises those at the top to stay there by not rocking the boat.

Even after two and a half years of media digging for the story, brave young people risking their careers to speak out and a relentless public pile-on, the firm still tired to minimise and PR their way out of it.

For RM, Dyhrberg says the place needs to do the work to rebuild itself, “or be demolished”.

A sentiment shared by Helen Clark, who called for the board to resign on Twitter.

 
 

Clark was Prime Minister when Bazley was appointed to investigate the culture and practices of the New Zealand Police exposed by Louise Nicholas and which resulted in a group of officers jailed for historic sexual assaults.

Clark told Newsroom following the Bazley report’s release, she was "absolutely shocked" that this behaviour could have been tolerated.

"Let’s be clear it was widely known about in that law firm. Now, like women the world over [they] have been scared to come forward because it will affect their future and Russell McVeagh have been a leading New Zealand law firm. It’s been prestigious to be recruited.

"Put simply, after being recruited people have put up with what has been dished out and that’s not good enough, really the whole board should resign. They should take responsibility.

“It’s absolutely atrocious what’s come out in the Bazley inquiry.”

One writer on the subject, who was not identified due to her close proximity to the RM offences, also criticised how the firm needs to take much more serious action.

While the report rightly vindicated the women’s claims, it was lacking calls for heads to roll at RM - especially in the HR department and partners’ offices, where the plan of attack was to launch a charm offensive, ignore the women and give the offenders glowing references for new jobs elsewhere.

“The review refers to the firm taking internal advice,” the writer said.

“That’s a euphemism for more incident management. Pretty handy to have some in-house smarts to help you with butt covering. Even more handy to have HR people to deploy for tea and sympathy along with the casual mention of defamation proceedings. The attempts to silence the clerks were despicable.”

If systemic sexual harassment and assault is the problem, the writer is not the first to suggest the whole system needs to change.

“Parity partnerships and the model of clerking has been shown for what it is – extremely exploitative and destructive of many bright, hard-working young people. Changing that model is going to affect the bottom line. Let’s see if the firm can put its money where its mouth is and do that for the long haul.”

 
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Questions left unanswered

And as for what the report doesn’t address, one of the original Newsroom journalists on the story, Sasha Borissenko, highlighted:

  • No specific mentions of accountability. The chief executive, HR and partners are all mentioned, but the collective failings means individuals are let off the hook.

  • The role of alcohol. The repeated mention of parties and alcohol consumption may give the impression if these elements were not present, the offending wouldn’t have been, either. However, alcohol cannot be to blame for the seriousness of offending by senior staff on juniors.

  • Historic sexual assault claims were not considered, despite vast claims of these existing.

  • With no exact breakdown of interviewees by their current or former employment status at RM opens up questions about the information Dame Margaret had access to. Current employees, for example, may feel more compelled to speak positively of the firm, while other victims may still feel little incentive to come forward.

The findings also didn’t stack up for Stuff’s #metoonz editor, Alison Mau, who shared an anecdote from a Wellington chef who catered an event for the firm some 15 years ago.

At the time, one of the chef’s staff was assaulted and had to be sent away in a taxi for safety.

“That was more than 15 years ago. For Russell McVeagh management to suggest that they've only just realised how broken their culture is, and how sorry they are as a result, simply does not stack up alongside the facts,” Mau said.

Mau calls for RM to adapt a victim-centric approach in their promises of appointing an independent expert to make new policies for dealing with sexual harassment complaints.

But, she said, that’s where the report’s findings end in influencing meaningful outcomes - because their is a wider culture, at many, many firms both within and outside of the legal profession which continues to reward the conductors of bad behaviour.

“There are senior figures in some of our largest and most respected organisations who have flown from promotion to promotion, reaching the very top of the executive greasy pole, brazenly in spite of their bad behaviour.

“In some companies it does not even appear to matter how many allegations, from completely separate employees, they face – the rainmakers, the ones with the power, are the ones who are believed.

“If the results of the Bazley report make you feel a bit queasy, you'd better take a seat. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of organisations with similar issues of systemic sexual harassment and misconduct throughout New Zealand's business landscape.

“The Bazley report is not an end point for anything. In fact, when it comes to shining a light on the grubby, and in some cases criminal, practices in places like Russell McVeagh, we have not even begun."
 

 
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beyond the firm: this is A New Zealand problem

The RM example has never just been about RM, it has been about all workplace sexual harassment, all sexual assaults, and all sexual abuse.

Dame Margaret’s findings themselves read: “A very small number of senior women told me all women experience some degree of unwanted sexual attention at some point and that it is the same at many workplaces.”

Staff with experience in other firms told her inappropriate sexual behaviour was not peculiar to RM. It was common in "some other law firms, accounting firms, big corporate firms and universities as well as New Zealand at large".

At Stored, we think the important question - aside from what action RM will take - is what the findings mean for the rest of New Zealand. Not just law firms, but everyone, everywhere.

A New Zealand Herald editorial put it well when it said: “It is a report all managers of large numbers of people should read and apply to their own organisation.

“Modern standards of sensitive and fair treatment of women in the workplace, particularly by men in positions of advantage, are not hard to understand and apply. Those who find it difficult need only imagine themselves in the woman's position. Those who find it too difficult are not fit for the position.”

This sentiment was also summarised well by government Under-Secretary for Domestic and Sexual Violence Issues, Jan Logie.

She said: "It is particularly crucial that New Zealanders can put their trust in the integrity of the legal profession if we are to fully address, and prevent, sexual violence and harassment.

"These problems are not limited to Russell McVeagh, nor to the legal profession. This underscores the magnitude of sexual harassment in New Zealand workplaces, and I am hearing that many employers either don't know how to respond or put their own business interests ahead of the welfare of people. This is something we need to address as a government and a country."

So how exactly do we do that?

By giving women appropriate channels to be heard, by listening to them. By putting pressure on professional groups, independent companies, elected officials and government bodies to create these channels. By demanding appropriate investigations and outcomes. By telling - and showing - offenders or would-be offenders that this will not be tolerated; that there will be consequences.

Because, as Dyhrberg says, “if we don’t fix it, like the Russell McVeagh partners, we are all complicit”.