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Sex education

Sex education

At the end of next month John Allan will step down early as chair of Barratt Developments even though no complaints about his behaviour have been reported in nine years at the company.

Long stories short

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Sex education

At the end of next month John Allan will step down early as chair of Barratt Developments even though no complaints about his behaviour have been reported in nine years at the company.

He’s also standing down after eight years as chair of Tesco, where he asked the company to investigate his record. It made “no findings of wrongdoing”.

So what? Neither company has had the last word. Allan’s abrupt removal from the heights of British industry has revealed

  • a blank space where boards need clear guidelines;
  • a failure by one of the UK’s biggest business to explain itself on a vital question of leadership and culture; and
  • a system for dealing with claims of sexual misconduct that serves neither victims, whistleblowers nor the accused.

Why? From 2018 to 2020 Allan was also president of the CBI, where multiple allegations of serious sexual misconduct by senior staff were made on his watch, including one of rape. Allan himself has since been the subject of claims of inappropriate behaviour from four women between 2019 and 2022. He “vehemently” denies three of them, two of which involved allegedly touching or grabbing colleagues’ bottoms. He admits the fourth, which concerned telling a colleague her dress suited her figure. 

Allan says he was “mortified” after making the remark and apologised for it – but reports say he did so only after being challenged on it by Carolyn Fairbairn, the then CBI director-general, who considered it “wholly inappropriate, demeaning and objectifying”. Another former CBI employee described Allan to a Times reporter as a “known dinosaur”.

So there is a case that he presided over a culture of misogyny, was blind to it and part of it. But the case has not been made. Instead…

  • Barratt, Britain’s biggest housebuilder, said on Tuesday Allan was leaving early to prevent the impact of the allegations against him “becoming disruptive to the Company”. Asked yesterday what process was followed bringing forward his departure, Barratt wouldn’t comment. 
  • Tesco said Allan was stepping down to avoid becoming a “distraction” even though an “extensive review” of his record turned up “no complaints or concerns, formally or informally”.
  • The four women’s complaints have been detailed in a Guardian investigation of sexual misconduct at the CBI, where separate cases have been referred to police, none involving Allan. 
  • The senior independent directors at both companies – Jock Lennox at Barratt and Byron Grote at Tesco – have thanked him for his service.

There has been no process, due or otherwise; no justice done or seen to be done. 

Employees see accusations rebuffed with denials but not resolved. Four in ten women report experiencing workplace harassment, according to research by the Fawcett Society. “It is clearly in the best interest of every organisation, regardless of size, public or private, to treat any accusations of sexual harassment with utmost seriousness,” says Ann Francke, CEO of the Chartered Management Institute.

Boards see a landscape in which they may be expected to sack a chair or CEO on the basis of unproven allegations because media pressure demands nothing less once they have been aired; because that can have a material impact on a company’s market value; and because with no rules of engagement there is no room for compromise.

The Institute of Directors has been pushing since last June for the introduction of a code of conduct for directors that would establish such rules, but admits there are none at present. Boards in cases like Allan’s are left with a legal duty to protect the best interests of the company, to discharge as they see fit.

A former FTSE 100 CEO said yesterday it was sad to see due process trumped by media noise.

Yes, but. Media noise is a given, especially in the UK. (A group of Danish journalists visiting Tortoise this week said Britain had the best journalists and the worst press in the world. We’ll take that… on the chin.) The challenge for boards waking up to scandals and alleged scandals involving their own members is to deal with the noise but also do the right thing by accusers and accused. 

In egregious cases the law takes over. The rest of the time, clarity from the company is paramount, on process and in its communications. Barratt flunked the Allan test on both counts.