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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anna Isaac

Revealed: new claims of sexual misconduct and ‘toxic culture’ at CBI

CBI logo
The number and range of the claims have plunged the CBI, which calls itself the UK’s ‘premier business organisation’, into turmoil. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

More than a dozen women claim to have been victims of various forms of sexual misconduct by senior figures at the Confederation of British Industry, including one who alleges she was raped at a staff party on a boat on the River Thames.

The women, who all work at the CBI or have worked there in recent years, approached the Guardian with fresh concerns about what they describe as a toxic culture at Britain’s most influential business lobbying organisation.

Some of their claims are corroborated by more than 10 other current and former employees, and form part of an expanding investigation that has plunged the CBI into its biggest crisis since it was founded by royal charter in 1965.

The women came forward after the Guardian revealed separate complaints made against Tony Danker, the CBI’s director general, earlier this month. One of these was defined as sexual harassment.

The disclosure triggered an independent investigation by a law firm and Danker has stood down from his role pending the outcome of the inquiry. None of these new claims relate to Danker, and he has apologised for causing any unintentional offence.

As well as the alleged rape, the new claims against different men also include allegations of:

  • An attempted sexual assault by a manager at the same staff boat party in 2019.

  • A senior manager sending explicit images to junior female staff over several years.

  • Other senior managers behaving unprofessionally and inappropriately towards much younger female colleagues: alleged instances include a former board member touching a female employee’s bottom and making what was seen as a sexualised remark to another woman about her appearance within earshot of several colleagues.

  • A manager propositioning women after they felt he pushed them to drink more alcohol, while they were already drunk.

  • Widespread use of cocaine at official CBI events.

The CBI has expanded its inquiry to include these new allegations and hired an external human resources consultant to help manage complaints, as well as the law firm Fox Williams.

The Guardian has seen documentary evidence to support some of the women’s claims. They believe there has been an unchecked culture of misogyny at the organisation.

One of the women said: “There are some kind men who work at the CBI. But there are also men who prey on younger women. The experience of being targeted destroyed my confidence at work, and in other parts of my personal life.”

Some sources have raised their concerns about how the CBI is handling the inquiry, with some saying they have been asked to share complaints with the organisation in the first instance and not being given the terms of reference of the inquiry. They claim it is making women fearful of coming forward.

A second woman said: “It’s been scary. I am trying to protect my colleagues by speaking out about hidden problems. There is a real danger from some of these people.”

The CBI, which has more than 300 employees, strongly disputed that it was mishandling the inquiry or had discouraged women from coming forward. It said staff had access to an anonymous complaints mailbox and to the external HR consultant.

The investigation will also report to its board of non-executives, rather than to its executive committee.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is the UK’s most prominent business lobbying organisation. It is a not-for-profit organisation founded by royal charter in 1965, after a merger of older employer bodies.  

It claims “unrivalled” access to government. It also claims to have the biggest number of policy specialists outside of Whitehall, the seat of the British government, in order to support its 190,000 business members, which are the chief source of its income. Its total income was £25m in 2021, of which £22m was from membership fees.

Its membership is composed of direct members and members of other trade bodies.

Its 1,500 direct members are businesses that actively hold membership, such as the supermarket Asda and the jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce. Fees vary significantly: top-tier businesses can pay £90,000 annually, some mid-sized companies pay half this price and smaller companies pay far less.

The bulk of its membership comes via trade bodies such as the National Farmers’ Union and the Federation of Master Builders. The CBI counts these trade bodies' memberships within its own 190,000 total.

The lobby group has access to the prime minister and cabinet, and campaigns on issues ranging from funding for childcare to tax and skills. Its relationship with the UK government was stretched severely by Brexit, with its access to Number 10 much curtailed. A remark attributed to the former prime minister  Boris Johnson – “fuck business” – was considered to be aimed at efforts by the CBI and others, to try to influence the post-Brexit UK-EU trade agreement.

Its former director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn sought to rebuild ties with the government during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, including working alongside trade unions and No 10 on developing the furlough scheme. 

Tony Danker took over from Fairbairn, the CBI’s first female boss, in November 2020. He continued a focus on re-engaging with the government and the opposition Labour party. He was criticised for speaking in support of Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget in September 2022. 

The CBI is governed by a president and an executive committee, which, in normal times, is chaired by the director general. It also has a board of non-executive directors, which the director general sits on.
Anna Isaac   

The lobby group champions workplace equality, including pushing the government to boost childcare funding and get more women into work. It claims to represent 190,000 businesses, including Lloyds Bank and HSBC, and has regular interactions with the prime minister and members of the cabinet.

The number and range of claims have plunged the CBI, which calls itself the UK’s “premier business organisation”, into turmoil.

Matthew Fell, the CBI’s chief UK policy director, has replaced Danker on an interim basis and the organisation has been holding regular briefings with staff.

The most serious allegation relates to a woman who claims she was raped by a senior colleague at a CBI summer boat party in 2019. The woman told the Guardian she felt let down by a manager at the CBI who, she claims, advised her to seek out counselling rather than pursue the matter further.

The CBI said it had no record of this incident. The woman did not report it to the police.

Sources claim there was also an attempted sexual assault by a different manager at the same event. The CBI has confirmed that it investigated a complaint about this incident. The CBI claimed it dealt with it robustly, including by the then director general, Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, who ran the organisation between 2015 and 2020. The alleged perpetrator left the CBI.

However, the CBI has declined to say whether the woman was encouraged to make a police complaint or if it reported the incident itself.

Several other women have also claimed that they had unwanted intimate images sent to their mobile phones by a senior manager, some of which have been seen by the Guardian.

Other women alleged that they were propositioned after feeling pressured to drink alcohol, while already visibly drunk, by a different manager. Other sources claimed to have witnessed drunk women being encouraged to drink more and being followed at events on several occasions by this same manager.

Separately, sources have also described widespread cocaine-taking at official CBI events.

It is understood that the former CBI board member who made a comment about a colleague’s appearance apologised and said they did not mean to cause offence.

It was separately claimed that this former board member made a similar remark to a different woman some months after he apologised for the previous remark. The board member denied touching anyone’s bottom and claimed that the comment a colleague’s appearance had been blown out of proportion.

The Guardian put all these allegations to the CBI, including details to allow it to identify whether it had dealt with the complaints. It said it could not respond to specific allegations while the inquiry was ongoing.

A CBI spokesperson said: “The CBI has treated and continues to treat all matters of workplace conduct with the utmost seriousness, which is why, earlier this month, we commissioned a thorough investigation by an independent law firm into all recent allegations that have been put to us.

“It would undermine this important process and be damaging and prejudicial to all the individuals involved to comment on these allegations at this point. We will not hesitate to take any necessary action when the investigation concludes.”

On the specific allegation of rape, they added: “We have found no evidence or record of this matter. Given the seriousness of the issue, it is part of the independent investigation being conducted by Fox Williams.”

Fairbairn said in a statement: “As the CBI’s first female director general, I took a zero-tolerance approach to any allegations of misconduct, supported by strong policies including whistleblowing channels, independent investigations and clear processes. Any allegations of inappropriate conduct made to me were taken incredibly seriously and swiftly addressed.”

Danker, a former director at the Guardian’s parent company, Guardian News & Media, has said previously that he apologises “profusely” for any offence he caused, and that it was “completely unintentional” .

“The CBI is the employers’ organisation, and I am very proud to be its leader. We always strive for the highest standards,” he said in his previous statement.

Following publication of the story, the CBI said: “This is not a culture we recognise or would tolerate.” It said it had an independent complaints system and would take “whatever action is required to ensure people do not fear retribution for coming forward”. It said the claims of drug-taking were being looked at by the Fox Williams inquiry.

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