3 things the CBI must do after Tony Danker’s sacking

A sexual misconduct scandal has left the Confederation of British Industry facing questions over its credibility and usefulness. Can it recover?
Tony Danker
Former director-general of the CBI, Tony Danker

Sometimes, a crisis offers an opportunity for clarity. As Tony Danker departs the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in disgrace, the lobbying body should not waste time in implementing urgent reforms.

Danker was sacked from his role as director-general this week, following a series of sexual misconduct and harassment allegations. He had temporarily stepped aside in March as the CBI hired a law firm, Fox Williams, to investigate complaints made about him by female colleagues, such as unwanted physical contact, lewd comments and browsing staff’s personal Instagram profiles. 

The board has since determined that Danker’s conduct “fell short of that expected of the director-general” and opted to formally dismiss him.

But the CBI’s problems don’t stop there. Separate to Danker, three other senior male members of staff are currently suspended and being investigated off the back of a recent report in The Guardian. It details the accounts of more than a dozen women who claim to have been the victims of various forms of sexual misconduct while employed by the organisation, including one allegation of rape during a staff party in 2019. 

If the organisation wants to recover from this scandal with a modicum of credibility, here are three things it must change…

1. Address an ingrained culture of sexism

While Danker’s removal probably didn’t require much debate, the CBI should understand its blind spots at board and management levels that allowed him and other similar characters to progress to the upper echelons of the organisation.

Sadly, the CBI scandal is not an isolated incident. Despite numerous initiatives advocating equal opportunities and inclusion for women in the workplace, many businesses remain obstinately structured in favour of men.  

The gender pay gap is compounded by an authority gap. There are uneven power dynamics that have allowed sexism and toxic masculinity to not only survive, but thrive. According to a study by the Trades Union Congress, 52% of women in the UK have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. Nearly a third (32%) said they had been subjected to unwelcome sexual jokes, while nearly a quarter (23%) had been touched against their consent. 

The CBI cannot change what has happened, but it can choose how it responds. Appointing a woman, in Rain Newton-Smith, as Danker’s replacement, is not a solution in and of itself. The CBI needs retraining and awareness programmes at every level, followed by a wider and comprehensive review of its own recruitment and promotion policies – especially if it wants to advise anyone else on theirs.

2. Find some focus

What does the CBI actually do? In the aftermath of Danker’s sacking, several national newspaper op-eds have raised this entirely valid question.

The group, which claims to speak for 190,000 businesses across multiple sectors and industries, is often criticised for its heterogeneity. How can it speak for so many disparate organisations, which may have conflicting views and commercial interests?

At the top of Newton-Smith’s in-tray, then, must be identifying the points of consensus that do exist, such as the demand for healthy and fair office cultures, navigating the advent of artificial intelligence in the workplace, or mitigating climate change, and applying some focus.

While different trade bodies may be more equipped to lobby on behalf of their members’ individual needs for growth or innovation, there is still a value to be realised in having an organisation that can see the bigger picture of how various industries may interact with each other. 

3. Stand up to the government 

A close relationship with the government does not necessitate support of the government. The CBI would do well to remember that going forward.

If it wants to be taken seriously, it must adopt a tone that is both critical and constructive. It doesn’t matter if ministers are made to feel uncomfortable ⁠– only that they do right by UK businesses.

Politics, therefore, should take a back seat to policymaking, and any iteration of the CBI that follows this scandal must operate from a position that doesn’t prioritise being invited to events.

If the CBI wants to recover and stay relevant after all this drama, it must not be afraid to get radical.