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CBI President admits he is unsure if organisation can build back trust in open letter to all members

The president of the CBI has admitted he does not know if it can win back trust while setting out how it plans to bolster its culture amid the sexual misconduct scandal engulfing the business lobby group.

Brian McBride made his remark in an open letter to members that set out its response to findings of a review, conducted by a law firm, into its handling of the allegations and culture at the CBI.

Law firm Fox Williams said there were a few instances that the senior leadership within the CBI had awareness of the allegations made prior to their publication by the Guardian newspaper.

These included, the law firm found, a member of the CBI executive committee being aware of a complaint about the behaviour of a board member, which was raised with him directly.

No other board member was aware of the complaint at the time, it stated.

Mr McBride admitted the CBI’s “most grievous” error was “trying to find resolution in sexual harassment cases when we should have removed those offenders from our business”.

The law firm made several recommendations, including the appointment of a chief people officer to the board.

The CBI suspended all membership and policy activity on Friday after dozens of major members either suspended collaboration with the group, or quit.

The trigger for the exodus was an allegation of rape made by a second female worker, published that day by the Guardian newspaper.

Those to quit the CBI included NatWest, Aviva and the John Lewis Partnership – all led by women.

The open letter in full:

An open letter by Brian McBride, President of the CBI, to all members.

Dear members and partners,

I wanted to talk to each of you directly and openly about the crisis that has engulfed the CBI. About how this organisation, for almost 60 years an active and proud champion of British industry, let down its own people, and deservedly lost your trust in consequence. And about what steps we are taking to give you reason to consider trusting us again.

Whether that is possible, I simply don’t know. That is, of course, for each of you to decide. Whichever decision you each make, I believe that it still necessary and valuable to share directly with you, our members, and to industry as a whole, all that we have learned about what went wrong in our organisation, and what we could have better done to prevent these terrible incidents from ever having taken place. These findings are based both on our own analysis, and on the independent investigations conducted at the CBI board’s request by the law firm Fox Williams, when allegations were first raised to us by The Guardian newspaper.

CBI senior leaders and board members, as you can imagine, have experienced many difficult emotions since those events, the most serious of which date from some years ago, became known to us. The greatest of these emotions is a collective sense of shame, for having so badly let down the enthusiastic, ambitious and passionate people who came to work at the CBI. They rightly expected to be able to do so in a safe environment, and we failed them.

When the initial allegations emerged, this sense of shame was accompanied by one of bewilderment. Bewilderment, because we, as a board and as a senior leadership team, had believed that the corporate culture of the CBI was in fact strong, and among the very best. We had striven to create an open, supportive and modern workplace. Indeed, our staff often told us how much they enjoyed working at the CBI, while outside organisations would tell us that we had one of the best teams they’d ever experienced working alongside. Our people took pride in their work of representing the needs of industrial Britain, in for example, the vital assistance that CBI people gave to government in designing business support measures during the Covid crisis, and in so many other cases.

In retrospect, we now know that we were complacent. And we made mistakes in how we organised the business that led to terrible consequences.

The challenge of the work that we do, with its unique combination of working closely with government and at a senior level with Britain’s businesses, attracts many of the brightest, most energetic and capable people in the country. But, as we have learned, it sometimes attracts the wrong people too. Our systems of culture management, harm prevention and eradication were insufficient. Individually, some – though not all – of these organisational deficiencies may even seem small. But, together, they compounded to cause great harm to some of our own people, and then to the CBI as a whole.

We didn’t put in place sufficient preventative measures to protect our people from those seeking to cause harm and we didn’t react properly when issues arose as a result.

We failed to filter out culturally toxic people during the hiring process. We failed to conduct proper cultural onboarding of staff. Some of our managers were promoted too quickly without the necessary prior and ongoing training to protect our cultural values, and to properly react when those values were violated. In assessing performance, we paid more attention to competence than to behaviour. Our HR function was not represented at board level, which reduced escalation paths to senior levels of the company when these were most needed. And we tried to find resolution in sexual harassment cases when we should have removed those offenders from our business.

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 final straw was laid when complaints about our own Director General were made by a female member of staff in January of this year, although not in any way related to the more serious allegations that have come to light from some years ago. After investigation it was found that he had made a female member of staff uncomfortable and measures were put in place. However, it was only when further allegations against him emerged and were made known to the CBI board, that we immediately suspended the Director General, and commissioned an independent investigation by Fox Williams into those allegations, on conclusion of which he was removed from the CBI.

Compounding these issues, we then communicated poorly and ineffectively with you, our members, and this has placed an undue burden upon you. We were bound by legal limitations to respect the process and progress of independent investigations, but this cannot be an excuse for our failure to communicate and act clearly. Put simply, we lost our voice, amidst the maelstrom that developed around the organisation.

In doing so, commentators concluded that the organisation was cold-hearted and toxic, and that serious allegations of rape had been covered up, when in fact they were never made known to the senior leadership or to the board of the CBI until revealed by The Guardian. I will tell you that every member of the CBI’s leadership team is devastated and appalled by the substance of these allegations. Our collective failure to completely protect vulnerable employees, to ensure that the alleged incidents could never happen in the first place, and to put in place proper mechanisms to rapidly escalate incidents of this nature to the level of senior leadership, these failings most of all drive the shame that I spoke to you about earlier.

So, we have much work to do and, as you would expect, we have already started that work. Attached to this letter is a summary of recommendations from the investigation conducted by Fox Williams. We will be implementing these in full. We are also taking the following steps:

Effective immediately, the CBI will operate a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and bullying behaviour. More broadly we wish to set high standards of conduct and a number of people have been dismissed for failure to meet those standards.

As part of this policy, all CBI staff and Board members will receive compulsory training, covering bullying and harassment prevention, employee relations best-practice, mental health awareness and employment law. This training will become a permanent and continuous feature of our workplace. Our recruitment and new staff onboarding processes will be similarly revised, in line with these measures.

We have asked Rain Newton-Smith to be our Director General, and she has shown great courage in accepting this position at a very difficult time. Many of you know Rain personally, and have welcomed her return. We asked Rain to return to the CBI, not only because of her very considerable economic and policy expertise, but because the employees of the CBI deeply trust and respect her. Supported by others, Rain will lead the changes necessary at the CBI. I’m profoundly grateful to her for stepping up at this time. In this review process, Rain will be directly assisted by CBI board member Jill Ader, Senior Advisor and former Chair at Egon Zehnder.

We have already begun the process of recruiting a Chief People Officer (CPO), who will be part of the Executive Team and report directly to the Board. Prior to that appointment, an interim CPO will be put in place as soon as possible, drawn from outside the CBI. Working with Rain Newton-Smith and the CBI board, the CPO will ensure that the policies discussed here, across prevention, recruitment and zero-tolerance enforcement are deeply embedded within the culture of the CBI.

We will also further re-build the CBI board following the previously planned rotations, and we’ll make announcements about this shortly.

We have put in place a permanent, independent and confidential whistleblowing channel outside the CBI for people to come forward with past and future concerns about misconduct. To give further confidence that colleagues can come forward, we have also now engaged an HR consultancy that will also independently examine any further complaints of misconduct made by colleagues while the wider review takes place, and our internal processes are reformed.

We are progressing these changes at pace, but carefully and thoroughly. We will discuss our progress with you at the Member EGM taking place in June. In advance of that meeting, and, indeed, subsequent to it, your ongoing guidance, advice and support concerning these changes is greatly appreciated. This will ensure that we continue to have the input and insight necessary to deliver on this critical task.

The CBI and each of you, our members, have together, for decades, been one of the most effective industrial representation bodies in the world. I believe that it is enormously beneficial, both to business and to government, to have available the services that the CBI has provided in the past. I hope that we can effectively serve alongside you once more in future, albeit as a changed, and much improved CBI. Whether or not that is possible, I hope that what I have shared with you today is useful in the work you do to build great cultures in your own organisations.

Brian McBride

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CBI President admits he is unsure if organisation can build back trust in open letter to all members

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