Sexual harassment thrives in toxic workplace cultures – the McDonalds allegations show all workplaces need a culture shift

Allegations of serious sexual assaults, harassment, racism and bullying have hit Britain’s McDonalds chains, with over 100 staff detailing awful treatment from racial abuse to harassment against workers as young as 17.

While this comes as the government guts plans to place a duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment and scrapping long-awaited promises to make employers liable for third party harassment, the allegations at McDonalds are not particularly surprising.

Any workplace can become toxic. A lack of training, unclear oversight, high staff turnover and poor management practices by people without sufficient training will inevitably let petty power politics take over. This creates an environment where people who feel entitled to making unwanted sexual advances or racist comments will be emboldened to act with impunity. They know the policies, if they even exist, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, and there will be little to no consequences for their actions.

That’s when a toxic workplace will coalesce into a place where discrimination becomes commonplace. Particularly in a restaurant or retail environment, this kind of culture can take root and become very difficult to dislodge. Generally there are no on-site HR representatives, and training on equality and non-discrimination will be next to none. Workers who are generally younger may be less aware of their rights, and more vulnerable to harassers. These workplaces are not unionised, so workers do not have access to trade union representation to make claims. Instead of speaking up when faced with abuse or discrimination, workers in these industries tend to move on than report. Toxic workplace cultures can be widespread within hospitality and retail, meaning that some workers will simply think it the norm to be abused and mistreated by their employers, and not speak up. 

The evidence is clear, in an environment where harassment is tolerated and complaints ignored, abuse will thrive. If people don’t think their experiences will be taken seriously, they won’t report harassment. This perpetuates a culture of workplace abuse and entrenches harassers in positions of power. Abusers are bullies who will aggressively target those who speak out against them. Robust policies and reporting procedures that protect people who have been harassed, not blame them, are crucial to tackling harassment. 

The most effective kind of training for sexual harassment is microlearning; short bursts of content where the learners are in control of what they are learning. In this context, testimonials and stories of people who have experienced harassment clearly demonstrate what is unacceptable whilst not patronising those who have been victims of such behaviour. 

Good sexual harassment training should also tackle the broader issue of employee harassment, bullying and other abusive behaviour, and seek to counter the immense isolation many people who have been treated badly often feel. In short, the training cannot exist in a vacuum. It must understand that harassment has occurred in a workplace, and is probably still occuring. It must also be able to deal with the fact that the training will be done by both people who have been harassed, and by those doing the harassing. 

For hospitality and retail workers who are often without access to computers, mobile-first training is vital to ensure everyone has access to the right information. VinciWorks sexual harassment training solution: MyStory, is a mobile-first course. Whilst it does work on a desktop, MyStory is best experienced on a mobile device, with headphones in. The reason for this is because we wanted to create a direct experience between the user and the content. Using MyStory in a personal space; on public transport, in the kitchen or break room, or even just at your desk enables the space for private, quiet reflection that this kind of topic calls for.

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