The tragic news of the death of Eversheds Sutherland partner Geraint Thomas this Christmas serves as a painful reminder that mental health and sexual harassment issues are deeply intertwined.
The story is sad in so many ways. That Thomas, a retail finance partner at the firm, leaves behind a wife and children and that he died a week before Christmas makes it heartbreaking at the outset. But the story also has added significance due to its connection to the highly-charged topic of sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement.
Thomas had been accused of behaving inappropriately toward two women at his firm’s Christmas party. According to the Daily Mail, which broke the original story, both women are “devastated” at the news of his death, and one ex-Eversheds partner noted that they must be feeling terrible about the whole thing. Yet there is no suggestion they did anything wrong. If anything, calling out the behavior of a partner who had held such a status for more than 15 years sounds pretty courageous.
Neither is there any suggestion that the firm handled the situation badly. Thomas was informed of the complaints in Eversheds’ London headquarters on Monday, Dec. 17, before returning to Wales where he lived, taking his life the next day. But this episode will, of course, make every law firm even more cautious about the way they respond to allegations of inappropriate behavior.
Parallels may be drawn with the death of Labour MP Carl Sargeant in 2017. The Welsh politician reportedly took his own life last November after allegations of sexual misconduct, and Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones was later criticized for sacking him before he had a chance to contest the claims.
Investigating such allegations is rarely straightforward, especially if the accused has a history of mental health problems. Like so many other businesses, law firms are arguably paying the price for failing to adequately address complaints from mistreated staff in years gone by. Had they been quicker to crack down on such behavior before, perhaps there would not be such a groundswell of anger today which has left them playing catch-up on #MeToo issues. Clearly nervous about their own procedures, some large firms have even approached Legal Week reporters to find out how other firms are dealing with such problems.
No one wants to see alleged perpetrators take their own life, and many are aware that simply being accused of inappropriate behavior can be enough to ruin a career, regardless of the outcome of any subsequent investigation. So don’t be surprised if firms start to review their HR policies in an attempt to ensure they act with additional care when investigating those who could be vulnerable with mental health issues. Perhaps this could even be a silver lining to the otherwise deeply saddening incident of Thomas’ death.
But it is also important that the pendulum not swing too far. If individuals who have been harassed become more hesitant to speak out, that would be a terrible consequence to an already terrible story. It has taken decades to get to the long-overdue point where women feel as though their sexual harassment complaints would be taken seriously by employers. It is crucial that one tragedy not lead to another, where mistreated people are given yet more reasons to not speak out.
In a way, Thomas’ suicide crashes together two of the biggest personnel problems facing the legal industry—those of mental health and sexual harassment. The challenge for law firms is to ensure both are taken seriously and that they do not become opposing forces. This may not be easy, but neither is it impossible. For the sake of mistreated individuals and for those feeling suicidal, it is truly essential.