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Nobody in the workplace should be seen to be ‘above the law’ 

May 31, 2024

A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power”. Those are words spoken by the character Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, in political drama House of Cards.

“Agreat man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power”. Those are words spoken by the character Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, in political drama House of Cards.

Spacey’s performance as the Machiavellian Underwood earned him critical acclaim. He’s back in the limelight, not for his latest performance – the actor has spoken about his struggle to get work both when first accused of inappropriate behaviour and after being acquitted of sexual offences in July 2023 – but for Spacey Unmasked , the Channel 4 documentary with new allegations of Spacey having “behaved inappropriately” with men.

Instances of the sexually inappropriate behaviour are alleged to have taken place in the workplace, including on the set of House of Cards. Recounting their experiences, contributors said Spacey was regarded with reverence by all involved in the show. For instance, one man spoke of being in awe of Spacey and being excited to have just one line in a scene with him. However, a crew member working on set from 2012-2015, claimed “The issue of Kevin was certainly well-known.”

Going on to speak about the “issue of Kevin” not being addressed, she also claimed, “Because he’s the executive producer, he’s your boss and so if he comes up and wants to engage you in conversation, you’re in some way obligated to. It puts you in a really weird head space where you’re kinda waiting to [see] what’s bad enough for something o be done about this.”

Spacey has reacted publicly, taking “full responsibility for [his] past behaviour and [his] actions but refusing to do so for “made up stuff about [him] or exaggerated stories [about him]”.

It remains to be seen how things will unfold, but the documentary highlighted one important issue that employers will have to get to grips with as part of their imminent new proactive duty to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace: holding harassers in senior roles, or who are otherwise key to the organisation, to account.

It has long been recognised that sexual harassment is not always about sex or sexual desire, but about, for example, power and control.

Harassers are found at all levels of the workplace and it’s certainly not the case that holding a position of power will dictate that one will sexually harass a subordinate. However, where a boss has been accused of taking advantage of the power dynamic, it’s not unheard of, when no action is taken (or seen to be taken) for accusations to follow that the boss is being protected or the reputation of the organisation is being prioritised over the well-being and safety of employees. As the crew member in Spacey Unmasked alluded to, it can leave victims and witnesses to harassment to believe things would have to get very serious indeed for that protection to no longer be afforded.

There is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution to manage this issue, but there are strategies that can contribute to a change in culture. These include new policies and procedures to ensure victims feel encouraged and supported to report allegations as well as training all employees both on what unacceptable behaviour looks like and bystander intervention. In other words, it’s time to take action to rid the workforce of harmful assumptions such as that some people are ‘above the law’ or that speaking up won’t change anything. Because as Frank Underwood also said, “There is nothing more lonely or terrifying than feeling unheard.” That is not a culture any employer should allow to exist.

If you have questions or need any advice, get in touch with Blackadders Employment Team, working in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and across Scotland.

‘Published in The Scotsman, Monday 27th May’

The opinions expressed in this site are of the author(s) only and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Blackadders LLP.

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