This article discusses sexual assault and harassment.
Just days after sacking its director-general and suspending senior employees over claims of misconduct, the Confederation of British Industry has been rocked by further allegations of a serious sexual assault and stalking of female employees.
The Guardian has reported that a woman was allegedly raped by two male co-workers while working at the UK’s leading business lobby. A photograph of her being sexually assaulted while unconscious was later circulated in the office.
The whistleblower told the publication that although the blame for the alleged attack was firmly on the perpetrators, the CBI was to blame “for an atmosphere that was allowed to feed into people’s sense of confidence. That they could act in this way and afterwards feel no worries, no fears of consequences. That they could feel somehow proud, in an office.
“That there wasn’t a person for me to speak to in HR who I knew of and could trust.”
It is the second such claim of a sexual attack at the firm, after another woman said she was raped at a CBI party on the River Thames in 2019.
Another employee told the national newspaper she was stalked by a male colleague in 2018. Furthermore, the publication said: “the woman was actively discouraged from reporting the stalking to the police and the alleged perpetrator retained his job.”
A CBI spokesperson said: “... the CBI was made aware of additional information relating to a report of a serious criminal offence. We have passed that information immediately to the police, with whom we are liaising closely and who have asked us not to comment further on potentially criminal matters.
“Recognising the need for confidentiality, we urge anyone, including the media, who has further information in relation to any alleged offence to also report that to the police.”
Brian McBride, CBI President, later issued another statement following reports in The Guardian, saying the publication’s claims “are abhorrent and our hearts go out to any women who have been victims of the behaviour described.”
McBride said: “While the CBI was not previously aware of the most serious allegations, it is vital that they are thoroughly investigated now and we are liaising closely with the police to help ensure any perpetrators are brought to justice.
“We recognise the substance of the harassment report outlined as relating to an allegation made and investigated in January 2018. The finding of harassment was upheld and a sanction was imposed.
”However, the CBI does not recognise many of the most serious elements of the Guardian story relating to harassment, including the assertion that the individual had told the CBI of feelings of a sexual and violent nature towards the victim; and that he had followed her home.
”Neither is the CBI aware and our records do not support the report that the CBI discouraged her from referring the matter to the police.
“We are rightly undertaking an urgent root and branch review of our culture to right the wrongs where we can and to reform our workplace for everyone."
Earlier this month, the CBI sacked director-general Tony Danker and suspended three senior managers, as part of an investigation into alleged widespread misconduct.
CBI allegations put spotlight on tackling workplace harassment
The high-profile nature of the situation has already drawn attention to the issue of workplace harassment.
Recent research uncovered that a fifth of people worldwide (21%) have experienced at least one form of violence and harassment at work in their working lifetime. And while the glass-half-fullers among us will find it reassuring that almost 80% of employees haven’t been subjected to this behaviour, even one in five victims is one too many.
This is especially true when you look further into the research, which found that a majority of those who had experienced violence and harassment at work had experienced it multiple times – 61% in instances of psychological harassment, and 56% and 52% respectively for physical or sexual violence and harassment, highlighting a need for a zero-tolerance approach.
The data features in a report – Safe at Work? Global experiences of violence and harassment – which is based on the 2021 Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll, powered by Gallup. 125,000 people across 121 countries were polled about their experiences of workplace harassment and violence, as well as the nature and frequency of it.
The report also found that, at a global level, men were fractionally more likely to report experience of workplace violence and harassment than women (22% vs 20%), though its nature varies between the sexes. While psychological harassment was found to be the most common form experienced by both men and women, it was found that for a third of women (33%) who had experienced violence or harassment, there was a sexual element (compared with for 15% of men). The survey found that men’s second most common experience was a combination of psychological and physical violence and harassment (accounting for 20% or one in five male experiences), while for women it was sexual violence and harassment.
Elizabeth Gardiner, CEO at Protect, a UK whistleblowing charity, said it was concerning that there has been a further wave of whistleblowers at CBI raising fresh allegations against the organisation through the press.
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“This reiterates the message that the staff do not feel that internal processes are adequate enough to investigate or respond quickly enough to their concerns, or that they are fearful of coming forward in case of negative repercussions for their position at work,” said Gardiner.
“We strongly recommend that the CBI reviews its whistleblowing procedures so that staff can safely raise whistleblowing concerns internally.
“This should include consistent training both for individuals on how to voice concerns about wrongdoing - including sexual misconduct - and for managers on how to be good recipients of bad news or criticism.
“The CBI should have processes to address misconduct identified by whistleblowers and put in measures to help prevent it in the future.”