In our third blog on the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, we consider the recent allegations of workplace misconduct, harassment and sexual assault at the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI) demonstrating the potentially devastating effects for an organisation accused of such behaviour. Not only has the CBI been the topic of much media coverage for reasons it would never wish for, it now faces a fight to survive. It is an example of what impact allegations can have and highlights the importance of ensuring a culture which does not tolerate harassment and responds appropriately when allegations are made.

The CBI is an organisation which employs around 300 people and lobbies on behalf of 190,000 businesses. The Guardian newspaper reported that more than a dozen women claim to be victims of sexual harassment as a result of experiences while working at the CBI, including at least two who allege they were raped. 

An investigation by the law firm Fox Williams, commissioned by the CBI following the emergence of claims, found a failure to act allowed a "very small minority" of staff to believe they could get away with harassment or violence against women.

The CBI's president, Brian McBride, said the board and senior leaders felt "a collective sense of shame" for having let down staff members at the business group. He also said a small number of workers displayed "abhorrent" attitudes to the women they worked with. He confirmed a number of employees had been dismissed for not maintaining the high standards expected of them and that the group had not managed to filter out "culturally toxic people" when hiring, and had failed to respond properly when allegations were made internally. 

"We tried to find resolution in sexual harassment cases when we should have removed those offenders from our business," explained Mr McBride. "In retrospect, this last point was our most grievous error, which led to a reluctance amongst women to formalise complaints. It allowed that very small minority of staff with regressive - and, in some cases, abhorrent - attitudes towards their female colleagues to feel more assured in their behaviour, and more confident of not being detected. And it led victims of harassment or violence to believe that their only option was to take their experiences to a newspaper."

The CBI's former director general, Tony Danker, was also dismissed from the firm in March of this year over misconduct allegations. The firm said his conduct "fell short of that expected" of his position. In a statement, Mr Danker said: “Many of the allegations against me have been distorted, but I recognise that I unintentionally made a number of colleagues feel uncomfortable and I am truly sorry about that.”

The lobbying group, prior to the current crisis, was seen as the voice of business in the UK and a key player in discussing economic policies with the government. But dozens of firms including John Lewis, Aviva and BMW have terminated their memberships, while others such as Tesco and Sainsbury's have suspended engagement with the group. Aviva, a FTSE 100 company said: “We believe the CBI is no longer able to fulfil its core function - to be a representative voice of business in the UK.”

The CBI is funded by its members and in a statement its board conceded: “Much needs to change if we are to win back their trust so we may continue to represent business at this critical time for the country.”

The government has also suspended any activity with the lobby group, with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt saying there is "no point" engaging with the CBI when its own members have deserted them.

Baroness Morrissey, a well-known City fund manager who campaigns for female inclusion at companies, said she believed the CBI is "finished". Rain Newton-Smith, the new director general, said that the group had set itself a deadline in "early June" to call back its remaining members for an emergency meeting and update them on the progress made. The CBI has suspended all of its policy and membership activities until that month. She told the Financial Times she was sure the organisation would be renamed as part of its efforts to reform.

Only time will tell whether the CBI will pay the ultimate price for failing to protect its employees from sexual harassment.