I am an employment lawyer (you’ll all be relieved to know) but also a keen cyclist and follower of professional cycling. It’s not very often at all that those two areas collide, but they just have (sort of) in the case of Shane Sutton’s resignation as Technical Director from British Cycling.
The facts are that following some poor results he dismissed a sprinter called Jess Varnish at the end of March. She claims that Sutton told her to “go away and have a baby“. Sutton denied this and has done so consistently. An investigation was launched into that, but then a multi-medal winning paracyclist claimed in a newspaper article that Sutton referred to them as “gimps“ and “wobblies“. This led to Sutton’s suspension and resignation.
Since then a number of other Olympic cyclists have made allegations about “institutional sexism” and made further allegations about Sutton in particular. As I write this blog, more allegations are being made. I should add that I am not implying in any way that any of the allegations against him are true. For completeness the reason Sutton gave for resigning was that he has said that he doesn’t want to be a distraction to the Olympic preparations (now just under 100 days away) and he intends to fight his corner and clear his name.
Why am I telling you all of this? Well, there are a number of interesting parallels between this situation and the sorts of situations that we advise on and you may well have to deal with.
(Before we look at those, it’s just worth just noting something that appears in quite a lot of the reporting I have seen. The reports I have read seem to differentiate between the ‘sexist’ comments and the ‘discriminatory’ comments. That is of course an incorrect distinction, because all of the alleged comments fall in the category of discriminatory – sexism is just one kind of discrimination.)
The interesting thing about Sutton from an employment law point of view is that he has been part of a very successful team: the British track cycling team have been thought of as a real medal factory in the last two Olympics. In 2000 the Paralympic & Olympic track team won just one gold medal. In 2002 Shane Sutton joined the GB team as a coach. Then in 2004 between the Paracycling team and the Olympic team they won an improved 5 gold medals. Then things really started to get moving. In the 2008 and 2012 Olympics and Paralympics the cycling team won a very impressive total of 41 gold medals. This is more than a lot of countries managed across all sports during that time.
During the time I have followed cycling there have been stories/rumours of Sutton being, shall we say, rather direct. One story that amused me is that a journalist wrote a piece in the Telegraph which described Sutton as “abrasive”. A few hours later that journalist received a text from Sutton which stated “Who the f*ck are you calling abrasive?“
The thing is that, because of the success of the team, no-one was really prepared to listen to any complaints. A well known response was “Shane is Shane”. The results were apparently justifying whatever methods he was using, and the funding bodies were happy, the nation was happy and the media didn’t dwell too much, if at all, on his methods.
Then came the first chink of failure. In March the GB women’s sprint team (that contained Jess Varnish, remember her?) didn’t qualify for the Rio Olympics and a good number of pundits have been saying that we need to lower our expectations about the number of gold medals that the GB track cycling teams will win. This is the sporting version of a company issuing the dreaded profits warning.
I have certainly seen plenty of examples of similar things happening in companies. They bring someone in to “turn things around”, either a department or a whole company and they do it but ruffle a lot of feathers with how they go about it. I’ve been involved in probably hundreds of situations where a company is facing a number of bullying and harassment allegations simultaneously. Some companies take the view that (put bluntly) they are prepared to take these cases on the chin because of the positive effect on the bottom line, although they will take a different view when results start to plateau or even take a dip.
What most employers say with hindsight, however, is that they wish they’d taken a more active role in managing the alleged bully and done more active listening to the complaints that were emerging, rather than only really getting to grips with a situation once it has become serious, and toxic. There is no correct ‘one size fits all’ approach here. However, my experience is that one complaint against a manager may well just be an isolated personality clash, whereas two or more complaints about the same person usually discloses a bigger problem. Painful and long-winded though it might be, it’s invariably better to tackle problems as they emerge rather than hoping they’ll go away.
At Menzies Law we’ve seen these scenarios play out many, many times. You should give us a call to talk through any situations that you are concerned about.
P.S. I would still put my mortgage on Laura Trott winning a gold medal in Rio.