Superintendent Ted Hastings, leader of police anti-corruption unit AC-12, frequently refers to his female colleagues as ‘wee girl’, ‘darling’, and even ‘wee witch’ if they displease him. He patronisingly describes his colleague Kate Fleming as “a great wee girl doing a bang-up job”, despite her rising through several ranks to detective inspector. How can HR ensure his use of sexist language is appropriately called out and dealt with?
First and foremost, it’s important to have clear internal policies in place to set expectations for staff, says Catriona Reid, HR manager at Rutledge Recruitment & Training in Northern Ireland. Equally as vital, she says, is training managers to make sure everyone knows where the boundaries lie.
“Potential allegations of sexual discrimination or harassment are very serious,” says Reid. “So staff need to be clear on what’s appropriate, and managers need to feel empowered to deal with issues when they arise.”
Depending on the severity, it may be more appropriate for HR to resolve the issue informally at first, she adds. “Ted Hastings doesn’t necessarily realise his words are causing offence, so having a quiet word, or organising mediation with the complainant, might be best to start with, then formal action can be taken for any further offences.”
Reid highlights that it’s also up to HR to help foster a culture of psychological safety, where staff feel able to call out any behaviour they don’t think is right. “It doesn’t have to be a formal grievance,” she says. “They just need to know the door is always open.”