What needs to change and what can consumers do?

It’s been an interesting, emotionally intense few weeks for the beer industry – first in the US, now in the UK – as stories of sexual harassment and bullying have come flooding out.

These conversations are important, even if nobody much enjoys having them. Much of the behaviour described by whistle-blowers is appalling and, in some cases, clearly criminal.

There’s a certain catharsis in the very act of sharing these experiences, especially for people who have doubted themselves. Comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

It’s also helpful, every now and then, to have a discussion that establishes a collective sense of where the boundaries lie today, right now. It feels as if the days when you could disguise insults and harassment as ‘banter’, or gloss over predation as ‘workplace romance’, might finally be passing.

Sifting the stories

There seem to be a few broad types of personal experience emerging in the Instagram stories and surrounding discussion and it’s perhaps worth shaking those into categories.

First, there are relatively minor irritations – a staple of the conversation around sexism in beer. Like the way when people meet us together, they often address questions to Ray rather than Jess. It’s good to air frustration about this and, again, remind people that it’s fucking annoying, but it doesn’t feel as urgent or serious as…

Category two, where individual employees have clearly behaved atrociously. We’ve all worked with people who were difficult or routinely inappropriate. But when it comes to talking about specific incidents like this, things get tricky. Is there a ‘two sides to every story’ situation in play? Were incidents reported and dealt with as they should have been?

Unfortunately, given that it’s rarely appropriate to talk publicly about individual HR cases, a brewery that has dealt with a specific issue will look, to outsiders, much like one that’s covering it up.

It’s category three, with regard to breweries or hospitality businesses with cultures that are fundamentally broken, where there’s most room to make substantial, far-reaching changes. These are organisations where:

  • There is a failure to deal with category two incidents and people like that keep getting hired.
  • Problematic behaviour is modelled by founders and senior managers, bolstered by a cult of personality which means they’re never challenged.
  • Getting things done is prized over doing things properly.
  • HR is not taken seriously and there is apparently limited investment in professional HR support.
  • Staff, perhaps young and in their first management roles, aren’t given the training and support they need to feel confident in tackling inappropriate behaviour.
  • The philosophy that ‘the customer is always right’ leaves staff feeling powerless.

What needs to change?

We hope that UK breweries which have been named in the stories Siobhan has collected take this seriously, even if their gut instinct is to say, “Hey, that’s just not true!” Or, “It’s more complicated than that.”

If you don’t recognise your company culture in the stories you’re hearing, talk to your team, or give them a way to give feedback anonymously.

If, on reflection, you can see where the accusations are coming from, do something about it – and that has to mean more than a mealy-mouthed non-apology on social media.

How are your working practices and policies actually going to change to prevent this happening again? Are there people in management who need to step back or step down? And could your management team benefit from being more diverse? If so, how will you make that happen?

Given that, again, it’s rarely appropriate to talk publicly about individual incidents, clear, unambiguous public statements of changes in policy are the best alternative.

What can consumers do?

Or, to put that another way, it’s hard to buy products only from successful businesses which have never hired a dickhead or two; which aren’t run by somewhat self-obsessed bigheads; whose staff don’t resent management and/or dislike their work some or all of the time; and which don’t work staff as hard as possible for the lowest wages the market will permit.

With that in mind, we just don’t think it’s really fair to expect consumers to carefully dissect the HR record and ethics of every brewery or bar they buy from.

If you conclude, from information you gather from trusted sources, that you don’t want to support a particular brewery – that you just can’t enjoy the beer knowing what you know – then that’s consumer power in action.

In a sense, this is a version of a conversation film and music fans have been having for years. Can you enjoy the Beatles if you believe John Lennon was abusive to women as a young man? Does the way Uma Thurman was treated on the set of Kill Bill mean your Tarantino box set needs to go in the bin?

Smart people have reached some interesting conclusions on this:

  1. It’s up to you, as an individual, to decide if knowing how the creator behaves makes it impossible for you to enjoy the work. That’s the only question you need to answer, for yourself.
  1. Like it or not, we do, consciously or subconsciously, make some allowances for the passage of time. If we only read, watched or listened to art created by people who never transgressed against modern standards, we’d have very little left.
  1. Films aren’t the work of a Single Great Man. Ditch Hitchcock (there’s an argument) and you throw out the work of an awful lot of brilliant, blameless people with him, including plenty of women.

It isn’t always possible to separate art from the artist, or beer from the brewer, but what we can all do is get out of the habit of repeating that Great Man narrative.

When we wrote Brew Britannia in 2012-14, we let ourselves get drawn into to an extent as we tried to pin down exactly who was responsible for specific important innovations or decisions. Even then, though, we did try to resist gushing, or suggesting that our subjects were heroes or saints.

Tell stories, sure, and paint portraits of people – the human angle is always interesting – but don’t think you know a person based on two hours of stage-managed PR flesh-pressing.

This conversation is already driving some interesting responses, from conferences to talk of unions to, we think, plenty of meaningful reflection. In the long run, that’s what we need.

One reply on “What needs to change and what can consumers do?”

I think that – with the addition of the quoted tweets – is probably a very accurate statement of the situation. I say “probably”, because I’ve no direct knowledge of this end of the brewing industry. But my wife runs an HR consultancy geared at small to medium organisations, aiming to provide exactly what it’s clear a lot of these organisations don’t have. It’s very clear that many small businesses don’t have the first idea of their legal obligations as employers, for a start – lots don’t even seem to know of their obligation to provide a contract of employment to new employees. In such circumstances, it can’t be a surprise that small to medium businesses don’t know how to deal with problems. My wife gets quite a bit of business from such organisations, and she’ll not only try to resolve their existing issues, but will make sure processes are put in place and understood by management to try to avoid future issues, or at least allow them to be resolved early.
Thing is that many small business owners are really good at what their business does, but have no management training or understanding. With HR, it’s much, much cheaper to buy in what you need early on, rather than when things go wrong. And HR professionals are much cheaper than lawyers if it goes BADLY wrong. There are some bad ‘uns among the HR community, too – franchised chains who don’t employ on expertise and knowledge, but search out a local provider with decent CIPD qualifications, and they will save a small business money in the long run.

Sorry, that wasn’t meant to sound like a commercial, but I care about small brewers and want to see them thrive, and to do that, they can’t ignore this sort of thing.

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