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Saints and sinners in the workplace.

It is not a great time to be a Sampson. Most people can point to someone with their name who has done something vaguely worth celebrating. But apart from an obscure Celtic Saint who tamed a dragon with a single word and whose thighbone is still venerated in a Brittany cathedral, famous Sampsons have been few on the ground.


So, the sacking of England women’s football manager Mark Sampson (no relation) has hit my household hard. And the fact that recent days have seen rumours of inappropriate work relations added to the accusations of racism doesn’t exactly do much for the family name.

Former England women's football manager, Mark Sampson. (Flickr / James Boyes)

There appears to be a general acceptance that the rumours are grounded in some evidence. Clearly, if the substantive allegations really are true, it is difficult to argue against dismissal. You simply cannot have senior staff predating on people over whom they are exercising authority. All abuse of power is wrong and sexual relations which look superficially consensual can be in reality coercive. I spent too many years researching and writing about sexual crime to be dismissive of the experience of those on the receiving end of such activity.

That said, I think we should be just a tad cautious about the rush to judgement. In my various roles, I have often had to deal with accusations of senior staff engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour. Of course you have to investigate properly and, sadly, one or two claims were clearly based in truth. But others were misplaced: an allegation that a straight-acting gay boss was having an affair with his happily married PA, for example, was difficult to believe in the face of their amused but determined denials.

And, of course, every boss’s behaviour is the subject of scrutiny. A female CEO friend told me the other day that she found out that she is said to have had affairs with every one of her male leadership team. I have experienced the same sort of thing: an office rumour that I was using my Arsenal season tickets as some sort of sexual lure was laughably untrue; I had put my tickets into the staff raffle and the winner took her mother to the game. It also showed a touching belief in the aphrodisiacal effects of an evening at the Emirates. Watching Arsenal play gives rise to many emotions but uncontrollable lust is not one of them.

And of course, when such allegations coincide with wider organisational disputes, there is a temptation to question the motivation behind them. In one organisation, where a large change programme was being undertaken requiring some staff to be made redundant, an (untrue) allegation against a senior member involved was raised, not to the fully-independent whistle-blowing mechanism we had set up, but direct to his wife — and at her work address. If the intention was to derail the change programme, it failed. If it was to poison his home life, it damn near succeeded.

But, of course, there have been far too many instances of (almost always male) leaders using their position for questionable purposes. If the recent Guardian interview is anything to go by, the departure of Dov Charney from American Apparel does not appear to have changed his relentless commitment to sleeping with his staff. The allegations about the behaviour of senior Fox News staff are even more disturbing, and the questions about the attitude of leaders at Uber towards women are a worrying counterpoint to doubts about its approach to safeguarding female passengers.

Former American Apparel CEO, Dov Charney. (Flickr / Dov Charney)

Let’s not get this out of perspective. My Celtic forebear St Sampson may have preached abstinence from sex (and alcohol - maybe we are not related after all), but I don’t take such a hard line. Office romance is an everyday reality (around a third of all relationships begin at work) or there is some evidence to indicate that relationships that start at work are likely to lead more often to marriage. And God knows, work life is boring enough to begin with; take away the element of fun and flirtation and it becomes even less attractive.

Portrait of Saint Sampson.

But healthy, consensual relationships between peers are one thing. Football managers — or senior executives — exploiting their power to predate on those under their authority are something else again. And on that, at least, I’m sure St Sampson would agree.🔷


Author image
Now a consultant and non-exec, Adam Sampson has had a long career in the voluntary and public sector, including spells as CEO of Shelter and Chief Legal Ombudsman.
London, UK