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Hugs, harassment and HR policies: Employment issues in the Succession workplace

Charles Russell Speechlys Succession Watch: Episode 5

“Am I gonna get a lawsuit if I hug you?” – Matsson

In episode 5 the Succession drama moved to Norway, and bad behaviour was very much on display against the backdrop of the GoJo/Waystar ‘cultural compatibility check’. There were frozen half-litres of blood, snide comments made in Swedish (Greg was labelled “two-metres of nepotism”), and GoJo executives in the sauna “hanging in the window like Peking duck”. And while the Roys do display inappropriate workplace behaviour at every opportunity, Lukas Matsson, CEO of GoJo might even have them beaten in this latest instalment. 

This week we will focus on the employment issues which could arise from the events of episode 5, particularly sexual harassment and workplace relationships. 

Sexual harassment and sex discrimination

“It’s OK. I keep notes. When I walk it either goes in my book, or they pay me off.” - Ebba to Shiv

Right off the bat on meeting Shiv, Matsson made a joke about sexual harassment. He asked her, “Am I gonna get a lawsuit if I hug you?” He continued on the same theme, referring to his female head of comms, Ebba, as “An oestrogen air freshener we keep around to try to keep us smelling clean.” It emerged these were more than just jokes; Matsson had a romantic relationship with Ebba and after it ended, he sent her half-litres of his frozen blood. He asked Shiv for advice on the situation, suggesting denying it and that he could “lawyer it out.” Shiv responded with “deniability is difficult, given she has so much… of your blood.”

It is wise for Ebba to keep a note of all the sexist and misogynistic comments Matsson makes to her. In isolation, Matsson’s “air freshener” comment would clearly amount to harassment. The reference to oestrogen relates to her sex, and one would assume the comment is unwanted and has the purpose and effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Ebba could strengthen her harassment claims (and the value of any compensation awarded) by showing there has been a long campaign of harassment and continuing acts of sex discrimination – which from what we’ve seen of GoJo’s culture, would not be surprising. Ebba has clearly also been subject to more untoward harassment that is sexual in nature, thanks to her boss’s penchant for sending his blood, which is likely to amount to further sexual harassment. Mattson could be right to worry.

Ebba could talk to someone about the behaviours she is experiencing – either a senior colleague or HR. This would mean the issues could be raised in a timely manner, and Matsson would have an opportunity to reflect, apologise to Ebba and correct his behaviours in future. Shiv’s initial advice to Matsson (“three-point PR plan just off the top of my head? Point one… stop sending people your blood”) would be a good start. GoJo should also consider educating all colleagues in how the company values guide behaviour at work and expectations for conduct.

Workplace relationships

“I’m done helping old ladies cross the street” - Roman

This isn’t the first instance of inappropriate behaviour at work we’ve seen on Succession. Last series the relationship between Gerri, head of legal, and Roman, the CEO’s son, culminated in Roman accidentally sending intimate photos of himself to his father. In episode 3 of series 4, Logan asked Roman to tell Gerri she was fired, knowing that the two of them had a more than professional relationship. The conversation was excruciating, with Roman, unable to look at Gerri, stammering “Guess you just lost his confidence?” “Oh, since when?” Gerri snapped back, questioning whether it was Roman’s photo mishap which cost her the job. And how could we forget that Logan himself had a relationship with Kerry, his much younger personal assistant.

While many US companies will have a ‘no romance’ policy in place preventing workplace relationships, this is less common in the UK. However, many UK employers will have policies in place which require the disclosure of a workplace relationship, so that the employer can take pre-emptive steps to avoid conflicts of interest (for example, by changing reporting lines).

There tend to be greater legal complications where there is a power imbalance within the relationship (typically a more senior male and junior female), as sexual harassment claims can arise on relationship breakdown. Furthermore, it will usually be the junior female who is required to move from her role, or is transferred to a different location, which could amount to sex discrimination if she can show she was treated less favourably than her ex-partner. In some firms there is a policy whereby in this situation, it is left to the couple themselves decide who will move, especially when one person in the relationship has influence on the person’s development, performance and pay awards. This will be clearly signposted in a company’s policy on joining, so potential employees are aware.

When workplace relationships sour, an effective way forwards is mediation (either informal or formal). This can be a highly effective way of ensuring conducive working relationships can be maintained and don’t escalate into formal grievance procedures - essentially, the opposite of how Logan handled the situation with Roman and Gerri.

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