The reputation of outgoing Tesco chairman John Allan is in tatters. But Tesco doesn’t come out of the sexual harassment scandal with flying colours either.
Last week Tesco announced that Allan was stepping down at the AGM next month to prevent further “distraction” following a number of allegations of sexual harassment. This week Barratt Homes, of which Allan is also chairman, asked him to step down next month, ahead of the original September date, with the avoidance of “disruption” cited as the reason.
Tesco’s decision had followed 10 days on from a report in The Guardian on 9 May in which four sources claimed that Allan, Tesco’s chairman – and former CBI president – acted inappropriately. One senior Tesco member alleged the 74-year-old touched her bottom at the company’s annual general meeting in June last year. It is also claimed that he did the same to a CBI member of staff at its annual dinner in May 2019, when he was president.
Allan has “vigorously denied” three of the four allegations, while apologising for a fourth comment made towards a female colleague at the CBI, in 2019.
It’s also important to point out that Tesco’s investigation – in which all Tesco staff, and all attendees of last year’s AGM, were contacted, as well as reviews of all available CCTV footage from the AGM – had not found “any evidence or complaints in relation to John at the Tesco 2022 AGM or at all in his tenure as Tesco chair”.
But allegations over Allan’s “wholly inappropriate, demeaning and objectifying” behaviour towards a female colleague at the CBI were first raised by a report in The Times on 29 April, a further 10 days earlier.
What took Tesco so long?
On the board of any plc, the only meaningful role played by the senior independent director (Byron Grote in Tesco’s case) is if there’s a problem with the chairman. Those initial allegations against Allan should have prompted an immediate investigation.
Even before the sexual harassment allegations were raised, Allan’s card should already have been marked following his claim, in 2017, that white men were “an endangered species in plc boardrooms”.
And let’s face it, Allan has always been a bit of a liability. As the simultaneous president of the CBI and chairman of the UK’s biggest grocer, was it appropriate to lobby on behalf of Tesco for business rates relief to continue during Covid? Only weeks after appearing on the Today programme to insist this was needed, he announced the board’s “unanimous decision to repay the rates relief”, following the lead set by Howdens.
In extensive media appearances, Allan’s very public support for the Labour Party was a further source of embarrassment for Tesco, compromising the grocer’s staunchly non-political position, with senior colleagues speculating that Allan was making an early bid for a knighthood.
And Allan’s accusations of supplier profiteering on the Laura Kuenssberg show were even more damaging, causing fury among suppliers, and kicking off a media storm. Far from being briefed, the view internally was that Allan was a loose cannon.
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Allan’s work with Tesco will officially end at the AGM on 16 June, though awkwardly with Grote as interim chair. Will Allan be welcome? Will he even show up, or just go quietly? It’s not clear.
But there is a bigger, more important issue at stake here too. One that is not only about the reputation of Allan or Tesco. It concerns the question of sexual harassment itself.
Amid huge scrutiny of Allan and the wider CBI scandal, it’s important to acknowledge that incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace are not the exception – they are the rule.
A staggering one in 10 retail workers have experienced ‘inappropriate touching of a sexual nature’, research by Foot Anstey showed in 2019.
Of those who experienced harassment, over a third (36%) believed their employer could have done more to prevent it.
A 2020 government survey also found that, among those who had experienced sexual harassment, the most common industries were retail and wholesale, healthcare and social work and manufacturing (14%, 10% and 9% respectively).
It goes to show how claims of sexual assault and abuse of power are still, in this post-me too era, not taken as seriously as they should.
So there is a difficult debate to be had about sexual harassment in the workplace, especially when alleged abusers occupy senior positions. We know that corporate culture trickles down from the top. So senior leaders have to consider the message they are sending to other potential victims across the entire industry. As do we all, or we too are guilty of inflicting a culture of shame and contributing to their silence.
If we, as an industry and as people, can’t see this – and indeed don’t act on it quickly and unequivocally – then we’ve failed miserably.