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Three of the largest accounting firms in the U.S. have started talking about an uncomfortable and nearly ignored topic: sexual harassment among their legions of accountants, lawyers, and business consultants.
Deloitte, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLPs have reached out to their workforces to reiterate the firms’ sexual harassment policies and expectations for workplace conduct following reports that Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed and assaulted well known actresses and his own staff over decades.
The Weinstein allegations gave rise to the #MeToo movement, which aims to expose how widespread sexual harassment is in modern America.
“I really want our people to be engaged in this important social conversation. We were all shocked by the allegations. Certainly there is a lot to talk about,” said Jennifer Allyn, PwC’s diversity strategy leader.
PwC has retooled its sexual harassment training and is planning a series of live discussion sessions for employees. KPMG assessed its own policies, procedures and its sexual harassment training, which was refreshed last year, the firms told Bloomberg Tax.
Deloitte said in a statement to Bloomberg Tax that the firm is committed to providing an inclusive work environment.
“Inclusive, respectful and ethical behavior is at the core of our culture, and we have stepped up our communication to ensure our people understand our policies and know they are supported,” the statement reads.
Ernst and Young LLP also issued a statement to Bloomberg Tax but didn’t divulge whether any changes are being considered to sexual harassment training, communications, or investigations in the wake of #MeToo.
“We are committed to maintaining a safe and inclusive professional business environment free from all forms of discrimination and harassment for all of our people. Our culture, values and commitment are reinforced by our inclusion and non-discrimination policy,” the EY statement reads.
This week, an EY tax partner filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stating that she was groped by a colleague and sexually harassed by co-workers. She reported the incidents to human resources but said that EY did not take her complaints, which date back to 2015, seriously.
In recent years, EY has been named among the top companies to work for by Fortune Magazine, the National Association for Female Executives, DiversityInc and Working Mother Magazine.
But the complaint underscores the message of #MeToo plus research from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that sexual harassment in the workplace persists.
Roughly a third of all EEOC complaints filed in 2015, the most recent data available, involved workplace harassment allegations. Of those, nearly half involved sexual harassment, according to a 2016 EEOC report on harassment.
The Big Four have long advocated for more opportunities for women and see the economic benefits of hiring and promoting women. Women lead two of the firms, and three of the firms support a non-profit group that advocates for women’s career advancement called Catalyst.
The firms heavily recruit college graduates, and roughly half of young workers entering the accounting profession are women.
To gain a competitive edge and recruit the best talent, they have to provide a place where young women want to work and where they can see themselves climbing the corporate ladder, said Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington.
But any sexual harassment at work can slow that career advancement, even for women not subjected to harassment, Hegewisch told Bloomberg Tax.
Men who would mentor them may be afraid that they expose themselves to potential claims if they develop women the same way they develop men—taking them to dinner, on business trips, or providing constructive, honest feedback.
“Ok, so you don’t get harassed, but you don’t get the opportunity to grow and to learn,” she said.
That chilling effect is among KPMG’s chief diversity officer Sue Townsen’s top concerns. “We’ve really come so far,” Townsen said of women’s advancement and she wants women to continue to enjoy those same opportunities.
Both KPMG and PwC started their post-Weinstein communications with a message from the top.
Late last year, KPMG CEO Lynne Doughtie sent out a firm-wide memo highlighting the firm’s zero-tolerance policy and how employees can report sexual harassment complaints, Townsen said.
“We want to be having a conversation with our people,” she said. “We know this is happening out there, we know this is going on. Let’s remember when you come into our four walls, into KPMG, we don’t tolerate that.”
A video, part of the firm’s Talking Inclusion series, is in the works to tackle sexual harassment and the expectation that male staff will support their female colleagues and play a role in preventing such behavior, she said.
“How do we bring it into the open here to make sure we’re all having conversations about it and understand everyone’s role in it,” Townsen said.
PwC U.S. Chair Tim Ryan also reminded staff through a firm-wide email in October that PwC values respect and has a commitment to gender equality. He also recapped the firm’s investigation process and shared the hotline to report complaints, Allyn said.
“There was no doubt that it should be him,” she said, describing the decision for Ryan to reach out to staff as “critical.”
That note was followed by a session on sexual harassment training during a town hall and reinforced in subsequent messages from Ryan and market managing partners.
New online sexual harassment training rolls out next week and PwC plans live discussion sessions with Allyn this year to give its employees across the country the chance to voice their own questions and concerns, she said.
Staff have plenty of questions, Allyn said. Is hugging OK? Should men still go to working dinners with women or mentor women? What should someone do if a colleague reports a complaint to them? And whether the investigation process is fair, are common questions that employees have raised, she said.
“That’s why this conversation is so valuable,” Allyn said.
What 2017 revealed was there are gender and power dynamics at play, and setting boundaries had to be part of the firm’s overall diversity and inclusion strategy, she said.
“We can’t function without working together as colleagues,” she said.
The #MeToo movement gives accounting firms the chance to build on their efforts to offer a better workplace, said Brande Stellings, senior vice president for advisory services at Catalyst, a nonprofit that been working for women’s career advancement for over five decades.
“It is a real opportunity to take a quantum leap forward and address some of the things that were unspoken,” Stellings told Bloomberg Tax.
Accountants—who tend to be polite, rule-followers—are good at avoiding taboo topics like race and sexual harassment, said Jina Etienne, former president and CEO of the National Association of Black Accountants who now runs a consulting firm in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“It’s easy to have issues like this going on and no one knowing about it,” Etienne told Bloomberg Tax.
Etienne credits diversity and inclusion initiatives for setting the foundation for more open conversations about what she called uncomfortable subjects. And that’s important as the firms’ diversity goals have evolved from recruiting women and minorities, to now convincing them to stay.
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