The media storm surrounding former SNP leader Alex Salmond has in many ways been fuelled by his confrontational approach to the sexual misconduct claims raised against him. These allegations came to the public’s attention when he commenced legal proceedings against the Scottish Government about their handling of investigations. Some consider this a smart move, others a political distraction from the underlying claims. It will be interesting to see how his case plays out given his very public profile.
The impact of such allegations can, of course, be devastating for career, marriage and reputation. Even if they are not ultimately upheld after following due process, often collateral damage remains. With that in mind, anyone who finds themselves facing similar allegations needs to tread a very careful path when seeking to defend themselves. We know accusers are more willing to speak out about recent and historic incidents in the post #metoo era. A relationship power imbalance and situations involving alcohol are frequent themes.
If complaints relate to the workplace and are made first to an employer, then suspension is commonplace while an internal investigation is conducted. You may not be given much notice of a meeting to discuss the claims or it might even be billed as an informal chat (although this does not mean it is “off the record”). Your initial response may be to think you can quickly clear up any misunderstanding or explain why the allegations are groundless. Doubtless, the prospect of damage to your reputation or marriage will be at the forefront of your mind.
However, it is wise to assess very quickly whether answering questions at this stage gives the best chance to clear your name. Any account given at this stage may be admissible in future proceedings with your employer, your regulator and/or the police. If the allegation relates to a historic and/or an alcohol-fuelled event, how clear is your memory? Discrepancies and developments in your account will be noted, considered, and possibly criticised at a later stage. Be very careful about the account you give, and ideally take advice first, to ensure that your future interests are protected. Consider making a personal note of questions asked and any account given while it is fresh in your mind.
There is a frequent misconception that an account given to an employer will only be used in the internal process. This is not the case. If the allegation involves purported criminal conduct then the matter may well be shared with the police and they will look to secure any accounts given in the internal investigation.
Mr Salmond has commenced legal action regarding the conduct of the Scottish Government’s investigation into his matter. Most high-profile individuals will not have this option because any internal process for employees or partners will not be contractual or otherwise legally enforceable. It does, however, neatly afford him the chance of an independent review of allegations and he is bold to try to take control of the issue in this way rather than merely react to events. This approach will not suit every situation and other individuals in the public eye or who find their allegations come under the media spotlight should take advice about a media reputation management strategy.
It is possible to defend yourself in this new era. Whether accusers have questionable accounts or genuine complaints, how you respond during any investigations (including professional, media and police inquiries) is crucial and can be game-changing.
This blog was first published in The Herald Scotland, September 2018.
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