Author: Philip Harmer is a partner at Stormcatcher Motor Industry Lawyers. He is a practising lawyer, author and speaker on all aspects of employment, commercial and motor trade law
Working in the automotive industry has long been considered not to be for the faint hearted - a high pressure, high testosterone, high expectations environment where staff communications are invariably made up with four letter words delivered at high decibels.
Most will say that 'it’s all part and parcel of the business, it’s banter, it’s how it is', which is pretty much the explanation put forward by Cantor Fitzgerald before they were ordered to pay the thick end of £1 million in Horkulak v Cantor Fitzgerald International.
Some dealers may see an uncanny resemblance in the characteristics of Cantor Fitzgerald’s then managing director cited in the case as having a management style that was “direct, forceful and appropriate to the workplace in question” and the use of swearing and foul language had become his hallmark.
A decade later, the Employment Tribunal awarded £3.2m to a female banker branded “Crazy Miss Cokehead” by her manager for sexual harassment and “bullying” not dissimilar to the behaviour Horkulak experienced and with similar consequences.
While these two cases don’t necessarily make for damning indictment of the financial services industry they do illustrate the tension between high yielding, high pressure businesses and employee wellbeing.
So much so that there are occasions where the law, let alone simple human decency, is compromised in favour of the pursuit of profits, bonuses and commission, indicating the expensive short term value misjudgements that firms make when hiring and developing their corporate culture.
As a consequence the quest for strong management style ideals which include passion, confidence and commitment can veil the sort of behaviour that could cross the line into bullying and harassment.
What is clear is the importance of firms having a clear and prescribed anti-harassment and bullying policy, which not only is available but adequately communicated to the entire workforce, along with a zero tolerance approach.
One of the main obstacles to preventing this sort of behaviour is the inevitable feeling from staff that no one’s going to listen, let alone believe them and that their life will be made worse once the protagonist finds out they’ve complained.
These cases demonstrate that employers must take notice, uphold their duties of mutual trust and confidence and take allegations seriously, through grievance and disciplinary procedures, or face severe financial and reputational damage.