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Make sure everyone can feel safe at work

Author: ICAEW

Published: 16 Mar 2021

As a profession, we need to acknowledge there are aspects of our work that can make people feel vulnerable.

Recent events have prompted an outpouring of members sharing their experiences of vulnerability in everyday situations and how many adapt their behaviour to try and mitigate risk.

In professional and financial services, work is often based at a variety of locations other than an individual’s own office or can require working anti-social hours to meet deadlines. This can often heighten feelings of insecurity and vulnerability.

We have seen concerted action by firms to create more diverse and inclusive cultures where staff feel able to speak up and raise concerns. But recent events should prompt us all to consider what, if any, additional action is needed to ensure all employees feel safe.

Vulnerability and insecurity

There are extra dimensions to many work situations that staff need to consider. These may be around locations, tasks or interactions with people. The dynamic in professional services firms can often mean there are teams of young individuals with relatively infrequent in-person supervision to provide immediate support and guidance with pastoral issues.

Audit locations in particular may give rise to situations where people feel vulnerable. For example, where premises are located in areas where people are encouraged to take extra care and not walk alone or are known higher crime areas.

Locations on industrial estates may not always be well lit, can be quiet after the end of the core working day, are often surrounded by open space and are not always well-linked to public transport.

The need to attend sites in early or late hours, for example for inventory counts, or simply because extra working hours are required can mean travelling alone at times which feel less safe. This feeling can be exacerbated if it is an unfamiliar location.

Needing to carry around a high-value laptop and phone can also add to feelings of vulnerability.

Interactions can also involve additional stresses. The need to build rapport and influence can be key to success. Members often worry about friendliness being misconstrued or misinterpreted, leading to uncomfortable situations or unwanted romantic advances.

How can we all play a role in changing this?

It is not always possible to control where and when we work or who we work with. However, there are actions we can take now to acknowledge that these issues are real, provide support for those effected and make the profession a safer, and therefore more inclusive, place.

  • Partners or those directing work should make clear from the outset that team members can raise concerns about things they’re not comfortable with or where they’re on the receiving end of inappropriate behaviour.
  • Discuss safety requirements, for example, appropriately sized PPE, with management as part of engagement planning.
  • Keep an eye and ear out for colleagues – pay attention to potentially inappropriate conversations or pressure. When something or someone seems uncomfortable, checking in with individuals.
  • Work plans should take into account transport and local geography, remote locations or areas which may give rise to concerns so teams are aware of situations which may leave people feeling at increased risk. Ensure staff know the criteria for taking taxis if working anti-social hours, in remote location, or in a risky area.
  • Have a nominated neutral person unconnected to a particular engagement, with whom staff can raise concerns if needed. Ensure employees are aware of their firms’ whistleblowing policy, which should outline how to report unacceptable behaviour and what action might follow.
  • Safe transport options should be considered from the outset, and flexible working approaches adopted so people can have more control over how and if they travel during less sociable hours.
  • Where work meetings or events are intentionally organised after the end of the working day consider how people are going to travel home safely. This is especially important where staff are expected to attend and may not feel like they can give concerns over safety travelling as a reason for not attending.
  • Allow for safety in numbers – consider having two people on site for a shorter period of time rather than one for longer.
  • Have zero-tolerance policies on sexual harassment (include in engagement letters, make explicit at pre-acceptance stage).

If you’ve been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, CABA provides lifelong support to past and present ICAEW members and their families. Visit caba.org.uk to find out more.