Sexual abuse and harassment have no place in business

The recent problems at the CBI are the latest in a line of reports of sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace. There must be no impunity if it is to be rooted out.

Women's hand is stopping harassment


It seems that not a week passes these days when there is not a major story about an institutional or leadership failure when it comes to diversity and inclusion issues. This week it is the turn of the Confederation of British Industry which has dismissed its director general Tony Danker amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour by him and more serious sexual harassment and rape allegations about other members of staff.

Danker has said he was shocked by the dismissal and claims he has not had a chance to respond to the allegations against him  – he reportedly was interviewed and submitted written evidence as part of the investigation, but wasn’t permitted to respond to the final report – and that he did not know about the more serious allegations about other members of staff. The CBI, which represents British business, issued a statement, saying: “We will now work tirelessly to ensure that under new leadership and with a commitment to build a modern, inclusive culture, the CBI can and will resume its vital work of supporting British business.” It has ordered “a root-and-branch review” of its culture, governance and processes, appointed a new director general and created a new post of Chief People Officer who will sit on its executive committee and report directly to the CBI’s board on all matters of workplace conduct and culture.

We are still witnessing a slew of allegations against police officers accused of serious harassment and worse of women as well as racism and homophobia. And a recent shocking report on the London fire service listed worrying examples of misogyny, racism and bullying.

The ‘it’s only a few bad apples’ approaches of the past don’t really wash amid reports of such widespread abuse. What is needed is action and a clear line from the top of organisations that this is not acceptable and that there should be repercussions, even if the criminal justice process these days seems often incapable of dealing with event the worst examples of sexual abuse.

The CBI is representative of British business. It is supposed to lead on issues of best practice and it cannot do this if it is seen as compromised. Swift action is necessary to restore any confidence. It is an absolute basic that women should be able to go to work and not be assaulted or harassed by their colleagues and that such allegations should be taken seriously and investigated.

Offenders must know that there is no impunity or cover-up and should be under no illusion that such abuse is in no way condoned by senior leaders. A culture of impunity is at the very root of institutionalised misogyny, racism and homophobia. Action must be taken and be seen to be taken. That does not mean that there should not be robust processes followed, but these cannot be dragged out for months or kicked into the long grass. Too often it is left to victims to keep fighting such cases on their own. They must be supported.

Trust is at the very heart of working practice these days and trust lost is hard to replace. Too many women drop out of organisations which do the very minimum – or nothing [or worse than nothing] – to support them in such cases. Every woman that leaves for this reason represents a huge loss for the organisation, not just in terms of the individual’s potential, but also in terms of the message that gives to everyone around her.

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