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Behind the scenes at the CBI: Exclusive interview

CBI director general Rain Newton-Smith (left) and interim CPO Elizabeth Wallace (right)
CBI director general Rain Newton-Smith (left) and interim CPO Elizabeth Wallace (right) -

A year after allegations of sexual misconduct and rape rocked the CBI, Millicent Machell speaks to the women tasked with rehabilitating the organisation.

In March 2023, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) was hit by the biggest scandal in its 50-year history. The Guardian reported disturbing claims of sexual misconduct inside the organisation including harassment, stalking and rape. Separate allegations of misconduct against then-director general Tony Danker led to his dismissal.   

More sexual misconduct allegations were reported over the following weeks, and the lobbying group began haemorrhaging big-name members like John Lewis and NatWest, while the government suspended engagement. 

Charged with clearing up this mess were Rain Newton-Smith, Danker’s replacement as director general, and interim CPO Elizabeth Wallace. Both were hired in the months after the scandal broke. 

“I came in about a month after the allegations came out in the headlines,” says Wallace, “And shock was probably the very first thing I saw. People internally didn't feel that they recognised what was in the headlines. That changed into feeling angry about it, and trying to understand what happened, because we just didn't recognise this thing.” 

Read more: CBI sexual misconduct scandal comes as no surprise to HR professionals

While Wallace was new to the organisation, Newton-Smith had been the group’s longest-serving chief economist, but had left to become managing director at Barclays just a month before the scandal. 

Having dodged this bullet, why would she return? 

“I was in a job that I was really, really enjoying,” she says, “But my experience at the CBI had always been a really positive one. So to see how the organisation was being portrayed and just also the devastating stories, was really difficult.  

“When I was approached to come back and lead the organisation, for me, it was about all the people in the CBI, and how I could get them back to doing the work.” 

She also asserts that the CBI needed a female leader during this time, adding: “I think there's very few women who haven't been touched by – either by their own experience, or by having someone close to them experience – sexual violence of some kind.” 

As a woman who had worked at the CBI for over eight years, Newton-Smith denies having ever experienced the toxic culture described by whistleblowers. She describes her experience at the CBI as ‘really positive’. 

She says she is keen to focus on a better future, rather than her own experiences: “It’s not about individual experiences. I don’t want to think back; I want to lead the organisation forward and make sure we’ve got the right culture now.” 

Unsurprisingly, this plan to not "think back" has been complicated by scrutiny from the media and the wider business world. 

Newton-Smith says: “A lot of blood, sweat and tears has gone into cultural change, and we're doing it in a fishbowl.  

“Everyone is watching every step, and making inferences about the wider UK business community, because we are held up as sort of representative of that.” 

Wallace describes making changes in the midst of a media storm as noisy.

“Things would come out in the press and we weren't perhaps ready to report some of those things. And that's tough. That stuff is not easy. But there's no perfect science behind this. 

“Sometimes with the media, there's noise, and then there's some feedback that you should listen to. We had to ignore some of the noise, protect our people, and really just focus on internal improvements.” 

The CBI commissioned two reports, the first from Fox Williams, a law firm, and the second from ethical business consultancy Principia Advisory.  

On the advice of both firms, it undertook a number of actions to empower HR, including: 

- Creating a people and culture sub-committee on the board 

- Implementing regular meetings between Wallace and Newton-Smith 

- Enforcing mandatory training for managers 

- Holding regular town halls, led by the HR team 

- Reviewing all HR policies and creating a new employee handbook 

- Putting a new anonymous reporting app in place, and 

- Creating a cultural advisory committee. 


The full-length version of this interview will be published in the March/April 2024 print issue of HR magazine.