It seems that everywhere you look these days, there is a new headline about toxic leadership, managers behaving badly, or sexual harassment in the workplace, says Kate Palmer.

Most recently it is business giant CBI, which calls itself “the UK’s premier business organisation”, who have found themselves at the centre of a much-publicised scandal. Accused of having a toxic workplace culture, the former head Tony Danker was dismissed with immediate effect following an independent investigation into complaints of workplace misconduct that were raised against him relating to actions that made colleagues feel uncomfortable.

The board of the business group, which claims to represent 190,000 companies across the UK, said that Mr Danker’s conduct “fell short” of what was expected of him.

But is Danker’s dismissal an attempt to appease the public or a concerted effort to make the allegations plaguing the CBI simply disappear?

According to a recent article in the Guardian, more than a dozen women have come forward with claims of sexual misconduct perpetrated by CBI employees, with one woman reporting that she was raped at an internal event for staff. It’s important to state clearly here that none of these allegations refer to Tony Danker.

Whilst his dismissal can, on the surface, give the impression that the CBI takes allegations of improper conduct seriously, it raises more questions around whether the company is investigating all the allegations as thoroughly, and even whether Tony Danker’s dismissal was conducted fairly.

The “serious failings”

The group has admitted there have been “serious failings” in how it has acted as an organisation and has promised to do better. But is this merely lip service? Despite Danker having apologised for his behaviour, he insists that he is being used as a scapegoat to cover up separate allegations of serious sexual assault including rape, and drug use.

With any allegation of wrongdoing – particularly allegations of sexual harassment, drug use or other behaviours that would qualify as gross misconduct, or even potentially criminal behaviour – there is an onus on employers to conduct a thorough investigation.

Some may think that those at the top of the corporate ladder get away with things or are immune from punishment. However, the swift action of the CBI in dismissing Tony Danker shows the importance of setting precedents and applying them fairly and consistently, regardless of the position the person holds.

This should also involve investigating every allegation and every employee that the allegations relate to, in order to weed out any deeper-rooted issues. We’ve seen with the Met Police and London Fire Brigade recently how important culture is, and how difficult things become when sexism and disrespect are commonplace. Realising that culture change is needed takes work and the commitment of everyone within the organisation, supplemented with updated policies and procedures, championing a work environment where staff feel comfortable and able to raise their concerns. Comprehensive change in attitudes and training on expected behaviours also need to happen across the organisation.

But it also begs the question of whether an organisation claw ever truly back a positive reputation after such publicised wrongdoing?

Can public trust really be rebuilt?

Nobody is perfect and mistakes are inevitable – both in everyday life and in business. But when those mistakes are high-profile and at the detriment to others – as any such accusations related to sexual harassment will be – problems will arise. Especially given the fast paced, technological age we’re living in where news is accessible at the touch of a button, and social media provides a platform to share thoughts and opinions, both positive and negative. News travels fast and it only takes an instant for allegations of wrongdoing to go viral.

Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors of all time, famously said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” That’s why the CBI are likely to be so concerned about their leadership going forward…

For me, personally, I believe the best way to lead is by example. Any leader who is unable to conduct themselves in an honourable and professional manner is going to have a hard time rebuilding either their reputation or their career.

What does the future look like for CBI?

So, is the end for the CBI? They’ve certainly fallen out of favour with a lot of businesses. Since these scandals emerged, major clients have broken ties with the CBI or publicly voiced their concerns about the allegations. The government has also suspended the working relationship whilst investigations are ongoing.

And given the nature of the complaints that are being dealt with, it’s pretty clear that employees will probably not be looking too favourably at the leadership team. Let’s spare a thought for those who work for the people who are being investigated. It’s only natural that employees will have questions and will want to seek clarification on what’s happening. They will have read the news and seen everything that’s posted on social media.

The role of HR

This is where HR plays a key role. I cannot stress enough the importance of communication. It’s important to ensure employees remain informed, engaged, and motivated, to keep things ticking along in times of turmoil. Transparency is always the best policy in these situations. Offering all the facts and being open about any wrongdoing helps reassure employees that you are really looking to improve. It also helps ensure that everyone knows what is happening, put an end to any rumour mill, and ultimately, shows a more human side to your business.

Communicate clearly and openly with your employees and you’ll find them much more likely to trust in your leadership moving forward. Keep staff in the dark, and you’ll find them filling in the gaps and circulating different versions of events. If the situation isn’t appropriately managed, rumours and negative emotions have the opportunity to fester. This in turn causes low staff morale, high turnover, a decline in productivity, and financial fallout…

On the flip side, acknowledging and addressing concerns raised, and keeping staff informed every step of the way as you move through the investigation and disciplinary process to deal appropriately with any allegations, will give employees the reassurance and confidence to focus on their roles and responsibilities, rather than any scandal.

HR teams are the trusted link between management and employees. It is vital that all messaging is carefully considered, consistent, and ties into the company’s vision to maintain a company culture employees can be proud of.

There is no doubt though that any organisations, or indeed individuals, rocked by public scandal face a difficult road ahead to win back trust and claw back a positive reputation.


Kate Palmer is the HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula.






Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.
Kate joined in 2009 from a worldwide facility services company where she was Senior HR Manager. Her exploits included providing HR & employment law support to over 30 UK hospitals and dealing with high profile NHS union cases—expertise she now brings to Peninsula clients.
Today, Kate is involved in all aspects of HR and employment law advice.