Bosses should treat sexual harassment seriously like fraud, Barack Obama aide Tina Tchen says

MARK BLUNDEN
Tina Tchen, President Obama's former aide, speaks in New York in May 2017: Getty Images for The New York Wo

Business chiefs should tackle office sexual harassment in the same way they would fraud, a leading corporate lawyer has urged.

Tina Tchen, who acted as assistant to former US president Barack Obama and chief of staff to his wife Michelle, said board directors must be more alert to “patterns” of bad behaviour in the workplace and not dismiss problems as “an HR issue”.

She has joined forces with more than 1,000 actresses, agents, writers, directors, executives and other powerful women to fight systemic sexual harassment in Hollywood and other workplaces.

Stars backing the Time’s Up campaign include Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep and Eva Longoria, with initiatives including a £9.6 million fund to subsidise legal support for “women and men who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace”.

Ms Tchen was in London for a City Hall event marking the 25th anniversary of King’s Cross-based diversity and equality training consultancy EW Group, which discussed “what our future workforce in the UK will look like”. The Chicago lawyer, 61, said: “Sexual harassment exists across all industries, not just entertainment. Businesses must get serious and make sure the legal counsel is looking at it on a regular basis, that the board of directors and the CEO are reviewing these issues all the time.

Former president Barack Obama with then-executive director of the Council Tina Tchen om 2009. (MCT via Getty Images)

“The tendency is to say, ‘This is just a human resources issue, we’ll do some training, this is just a problem employee and we’ll deal with that on a one-off basis’ and not see a pattern.

“We have laws on the books that mandate fair treatment regardless of gender or race. Those are every bit as important to a business’s success as the laws that say companies shouldn’t be fraudulent.” She added: “Most companies have fraud compliance programmes and you have a whole compliance structure set up that is constantly monitored and watched at the highest levels of the company. That’s how we need to treat these [harassment] issues.”

During her eight years at the White House, Ms Tchen was also executive director of its council on women and girls. Her UK initiatives with Mrs Obama included a Skype link with Mulberry School for Girls in Stepney to inspire pupils.

She said current First Lady Melania Trump must try to make the best use of her “tremendous platform”, despite critics saying she is promoting an initiative against cyberbullying while husband Donald is a “Twitter troll”.

Rachael Wilson, managing director of EW Group, said it worked with businesses “gearing themselves up so that they are more attractive places for the next generation to forge careers”.