Many high-profile organisations within the world of football have recently grappled with sexual wrongdoing.

Sadly, these types of transgressions happen in most other industries and workplaces too, and there are learnings for HR leaders everywhere.

The women’s game staged its most successful World Cup ever. A cause for celebration? Sadly, winners Spain were immediately thrown into their own #MeToo moment by the antics of their Association President in celebrating the victory. His non-consensual and very public kissing of a star player continues to have significant fallout.

At the same time, Man United – probably the biggest brand in football (valued by its owners at £10bn) – has endured two sexual misconduct scandals concerning two of its stars: Mason Greenwood and Antony.

Greenwood was charged with attempted rape, assault occasioning ABH, and coercive and controlling behaviour. Charges were dropped following the withdrawal of key witnesses. The club conducted an internal investigation and apparently planned to lift the player’s lengthy suspension and rehabilitate his career with the club. However, following something of a PR disaster while it sought to consult with its female players (some of whom were at the World Cup), it was announced that he would be leaving the club by mutual agreement. He has since appeared on loan at a Spanish club.

It’s perhaps important that Greenwood has admitted wrongdoing: ‘I fully accept I made mistakes in my relationship, and I take my share of responsibility.’

These are the sorts of issues that the Byrne Dean team investigates in workplaces: Commercial organisations in the public eye are faced with handling allegations against their important employees, with the added confusion of a criminal court ruling to give no official sanction.

Someone can be found not guilty in a court whilst everyone is pretty clear that they did the thing – there is just reasonable doubt in the minds of a few. That’s not how it is when employers make their decisions however – normally because they are balancing the careers and to an extent lives of two people who work for them.

These are difficult situations to get right: what are the golden rules?

There are many stakeholders in a situation like this. For such organisations, public/media reaction is critical. In relation to the Greenwood matter, Man Utd put out a statement which read rather like a standard the very best employers would have aspired to. It said:

‘Throughout we have taken into account the wishes, rights and perspective of the alleged victim along with the club’s standards and values, and sought to collate as much information and context as possible’.

Prioritise the welfare of everyone involved; rely on the club’s standards and values; and investigate properly. These translate well into golden rules.

Rule 1 – Prioritise the welfare of everyone involved

Any process for handling allegations of sexual misconduct must welcome complainants and promise a human and empathetic response.

In most employment situations, the complainant is an employee, normally junior. She (it’s almost always a woman) doesn’t go to the police first. She presents to someone she trusts. She is emotional, fearful of not being believed and worse. Her story will be jumbled, often hidden.

Ideally, everyone in the organisation knows how to create safety with their response: listen to understand without judgement, empathise, assess risk, reassure, notice emotions and triggers. 

Two questions are often asked here:
‘What if they have made it up?’

Our answer is simple; if you come to that conclusion having investigated, and possibly find malicious intent – consequences will follow. But don’t let that possibility affect the humanity of your initial response. People must feel safe complaining.

‘What if they don’t want to proceed?’

So often investigations or disciplinaries falter at this point: because the complainant has, for whatever reason, softened her complaint. This is, in effect, what happened in Greenwood’s case. And this is where values become important.

Rule 2 – Rely on values

You only know an organisation properly when you see how it handles serious allegations of impropriety against its most senior people (or in Man United’s case, its most valuable assets – who happen to be people).

Does the employer have integrity? Or are the rainbow laces and equality banners at home games no more than performative gestures? Does it take hard (costly) decisions in pursuit of its values?

‘We are Man United and, following a thorough investigation, we have concluded that it would be in everyone’s best interests for Mason Greenwood to pursue his career elsewhere’ would have been a very clear statement, and possibly could have enhanced the club’s standing on many levels. With hindsight, it’s possibly one that United wish they would have made. 

Rule 3 – Investigate properly (once)

An appropriate level of speed is crucially important – as is emotional intelligence – on a sensitive subject like this. Your investigator also needs to ‘get’ (or properly understand) the context of the organisation, whilst making a sound and reasoned decision quickly.

The standard of proof the investigator works to will almost certainly be the balance of probability. They will be asking, for example, whether it is more likely than not that the violence occurred.

Rule 4 – Making an communicating your decision

Your decision-makers must then translate that investigation into a decision. Part of their job is to make sure that everyone who’s affected by the decision grasps that this benchmark is a long, long way from a criminal benchmark.

It also pays, I think, to have a diverse decision-making panel. Otherwise, you may have to build some assessment of stakeholder reaction into your post-investigation decision making.

Man United wanted to consult their female players. Could someone who instinctively understands how those players feel be on the panel? The panel is translating the values and standards into a decision. It needs to represent all stakeholders.

These issues are nuanced and difficult, we’re very happy to talk to anyone who’s facing this sort of crisis.

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