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Sex, lies, and celebrities: What employers can learn from the Russell Brand allegations

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In recent weeks, allegations have been raised about actor/comedian Russell Brand regarding various instances of sexual assault, emotional abuse, and bullying from four anonymous women. As outlined below, this story provides several important takeaways for employers and investigators who deal with these issues.

Background and allegations

The allegations stem from a joint investigation by various British media outlets, which culminated in a broadcast on the British TV documentary show Dispatches, entitled “Russell Brand: In Plain Sight.” The broadcast detailed allegations of rape, sexual assault, and emotional abuse, spanning between 2006 and 2013. During this time, Brand held various positions in the public eye, including hosting a radio program on the BBC, presenting on a British TV station, and quickly rising to fame as a Hollywood actor and comedian.

One aspect of the story that has caught the public’s attention is that Brand’s alleged problematic conduct reportedly did not always take place in the shadows. Rather, multiple instances were cited of him openly misbehaving in front of colleagues, with senior executives repeatedly turning a blind eye; essentially, Brand was described as operating “in plain sight,” as demonstrated by the following allegations:

    • Brand once publicly referred to a newsreader on his show as a “sex bomb,” “erotic,” and commented that he wanted to “go under the desk” while she was reading the news
    • Brand once commented to an interviewee that as part of his personal assistant’s job description, “anyone I demand she meet, greet, massage, she has to do it. She’s very attractive”
    • One accuser alleged that Brand groomed her when she was 16, and he was 30, and cited an instance of him sending a BBC car to pick her up from school to meet him
    • During a private meeting among TV producers and executives, they discussed the possibility of Brand hosting a show. In response to this, concerns were raised about his behaviour towards women. However, rather than address the allegations about Brand’s behaviour directly, the suggested solution was that the female staff be removed from the show in question

Dispatches asked the BBC about concerns that its senior executives had ignored Brand’s behaviour; the BBC did not directly address this, but responded as follows: “Over successive years the BBC has evolved its approach to how it manages talent and how it deals with complaints and issues raised.”

What can employers and investigators learn from the Russell Brand story?

    1. Precarious employment may prevent complaints from being raised

The entertainment industry famously runs on freelance contracts. As put by one commentator, freelancers (sometimes referred to as independent contractors) “are reliant upon very powerful individuals for their next job.” It is therefore no surprise that some of Brand’s accusers were reluctant to report their concerns for years, given that some of them worked on his shows in freelance, entry-level positions.

A lack of job security may deter individuals who have experienced, or witnessed, workplace harassment from speaking out, particularly if the harasser is a full-time, or senior, employee. Employers in all organizations should therefore ensure that clear messaging is communicated to all employees and freelancers/independent contractors about the company’s commitment to a respectful workplace, and the relevant policies and protections in place. Employers may also wish to provide regular training regarding respectful workplace behaviour, emphasize the various complaint mechanisms to report misconduct, and consider implementing an anonymous complaints process available to both employees and freelancers.

    1. Star power can be weaponized

During the time of the allegations, Brand was quickly gaining notoriety as a comedian and Hollywood actor. The presence of a high-profile individual, while beneficial for ratings, creates a risk that misconduct will go unreported and unaddressed.

This may occur for several reasons: victims may think that their word, against the word of a powerful individual, will not be believed, while employers may worry about the negative impact to their company if their star lead is investigated for misconduct. Victims may also fear the loss of their job and/or legal action if they make a complaint; indeed, one accuser advised that after being sexually assaulted by Brand, whom she worked for at the time, he threatened her with legal action if she reported the incident.

Employers should therefore be mindful of power imbalances or hierarchies that may exist in the workplace, and ensure that concerns are promptly and adequately investigated, notwithstanding the title or seniority of the respondent. Regular communications regarding workplace policies and complaint procedures may also provide assurance that complaints will be taken seriously, and empower individuals to speak out. Where employers suspect misconduct, but have not received any formal complaints, they can consider proactively conducting a workplace assessment; this can allow employers to take a “temperature check” of the organization and provide employees with an opportunity to share their experiences without having to file a complaint.

One accuser also alleged that Russell Brand exposed himself to her when she went to his dressing room to get his lunch order. Employers may therefore wish to consider the opportunities that may exist for someone to abuse their power in the workplace (for example, in private one-on-one settings), and implement safeguards to prevent such situations.

    1. Delays in filing complaints are not unusual

Some have questioned the delay between when the alleged sexual assaults took place, and when the complaints against Brand were made. However, it is not unusual for survivors of sexual assault to delay reporting such an incident, with the vast majority of incidents going unreported altogether.1

Delays can happen for several legitimate reasons. As noted above, those who have experienced sexual assault or harassment may fear for their job security, worry that they will not be believed, and/or fear that legal action could be taken against them.

Survivors of sexual assault may also need time to process what has happened, particularly if the assault happened when they were young; it may take months, or years, for some survivors to fully recognize that they were assaulted. Additionally, criminal sexual assault cases have a notoriously low conviction rate; this may lead some survivors to avoid the pressure of a lengthy trial and cross-examination by not reporting the matter altogether.

Employers, and investigators, are therefore cautioned to avoid making inferences about why an individual may have waited months, or years, to report an incident. Rather, the matter should be investigated with an open mind, based on the available evidence about the alleged incident itself.

Conclusion

Every workplace sees a wide range of personalities and behaviours from employees, some of which can be a warning sign. As put by one of Brand’s accusers, “he was very skillful in the start of making his identity be, ‘I’m the womaniser. I’m a sex addict. I’m inappropriate but it’s all just a joke, it’s funny.’ It’s a smokescreen for a lot more of his dark behaviour.”

Employers in particular should therefore be alert to the possibility that a provocative persona in the workplace, or controversial “jokes,” may in fact be symptoms of deeper issues that should be addressed.


1“Bill C-46: Records Applications Post-Mills, A Caselaw Review” (August 17, 2022), online: Government of Canada: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/ccs-ajc/rr06_vic2/p3_4.html.


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