Case study: Responding to sexual abuse allegations at The Old Vic

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After historic abuse was uncovered the venue came up with a confidential Guardians support network

“I almost cry when I think about it; it was really awful.” So says executive director of The Old Vic Kate Varah, in reference to allegations coming to light at the end of last year that Kevin Spacey sexually harassed young men connected with the theatre during his tenure as artistic director between 2004 and 2015.

The revelations didn’t just concern acts perpetrated in relation to The Old Vic. But nonetheless questions were asked as to why nothing was reported at the time, and whether ‘everybody knew’ about such behaviour but management failed to act.

A formal investigation by law firm Lewis Silkin has since been completed, confirming 20 allegations relating to The Old Vic and that trustees were indeed unaware of these instances.

But far from a line drawn under the episode, this is where the work began for The Old Vic. “These allegations are from 13 years ago so it’s a different management team, mostly a different board,” Varah tells HR magazine. “But that doesn’t mean we’re complacent.

“The investigation found that although there were processes and policies in place, in some cases people didn’t feel comfortable using those processes,” she says. This is a “gap” between policies and reporting mechanisms and the likelihood of people actually using them, found at many organisations, says Varah.

“So we puzzled together: ‘what do you do in an environment where you have everything as an HR professional that you think you should have, but that still isn’t enough?’” she reports. “We had a lot of conversations with our staff body and wider freelance community, and we came up with our Guardians programme.”

The idea is simple: have a group of staff across the business trained to chat confidentially with any concerned colleague.

“The idea is that they are familiar, trusted and perceived as confidential and separate from any management structure. But they aren’t disconnected,” explains Varah. “They aren’t an employee assistance line or a counsellor. They’re people who live, breathe and get the culture of the organisation.”

These individuals have been selected for their ability to respond in a neutral, confidential manner, adds Varah. They were then trained further on this and armed with information on formal escalation.

“The idea is this offers an alternative to just moaning to your mate, where everyone emotionally supports each other and then nothing happens,” explains Richard Miskella, partner at Lewis Silkin and lead on the Spacey investigation as well as on this initiative. “This person actually puts a framework on it for you. They can say ‘if you want to raise a grievance this is how it would play out…’ The idea is it encourages escalation.”

“And even if they decide not to escalate that conversation doesn’t stay at the water cooler,” adds Varah. “Because the purpose is also to help inform management.

“At the end of each quarter and formally once a year – and more than that if required – Guardians will report in to management and the board on an anonymised basis… So management understands what interventions are needed on the issues bubbling away that sometimes we don’t see or hear about.”

The critical thing is that the principles applied in these conversations, and the way grievances are escalated, have been devised by employees.

“We did a big session where we talked about the concept, then invited everyone to come back in and comment on the Guardian terms of reference,” says Varah. “For example: should this be entirely confidential or confidential to the point of criminal offence? Our staff wanted a criminal offence trigger… So that’s very much flagged at the start of a conversation. If someone says ‘then I don’t want to speak to you’ the Guardian has a resource list of all the people they could speak to who would be confidential.

“Prior to that we had an ‘OK, Not OK’ cultural session,” Varah adds. “We had groups of no more than 20 so people felt they could speak freely. We asked everyone to come with scenarios they’d experienced, heard had been experienced, or thought could be experienced. Then, facilitated by our safeguarding consultant, we workshopped and debated them.”

She adds: “No-one wanted it to be this very prescriptive list of dos and don’ts because they felt that would stultify our culture. We communicate as an industry with our voices and bodies, and it would be very difficult for us to flourish if there was a didactic system in place.”

Other work has included sessions on topics such as workplace communication skills. “We’ve done things like voice workshops across the departments, so using the skills we as a theatre already have,” reports Varah.

“We have almost a 24-hour culture; staff groups are very transient and geographically split. So the most important thing in many ways was prioritising and giving a budget to getting people together,” she says.

Ongoing, relentless awareness-raising and reintroduction of the Guardians scheme is crucial given that only 82 of the around 250 staff on the organisation’s books at any one time are permanent.

“We’ve started going into every first day of rehearsals; the Guardians introduce themselves and make themselves available,” says Varah. “Because it’s freelancers who will probably feel least able to go to HR [with a grievance].”

In light of this, it’s critical The Old Vic spreads the word to other theatres – and beyond – says Varah. The organisation has made all Guardian-related resources publicly available, and has partnered with Lewis Silkin to offer pro-bono Guardian training. Varah has also produced a simple ‘how to’ guide for others to use.

Miskella reports being overwhelmed with interest. So far around 20 organisations from a range of sectors have signed up to be part of a wider Guardians network. “It’s been designed so it’s not a hugely high-maintenance programme,” he says. Varah agrees the whole point is that this can be rolled out in workplaces for “zero budget”.

“It was so shocking and awful what happened that I wanted to do something positive,” says Varah. “I wanted to help avoid anyone else being in this position.”

To learn more about the Guardians programme and how to implement your own, visit www.oldvictheatre.com/about-us/guardians-programme

Further reading

Time's up on sexual harassment in the workplace

Tackling Westminster's bullying and harassment problem

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