Student facing 'toxic' culture at CBI says University failed to support them


Exclusive: Nouse speaks to a student on placement at the CBI who feels let down by the Careers and Placements team

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Image by Ben Jordan

By Gracie Daw and Hannah Boyle

A University of York student on placement at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) during the 2022/23 academic year has approached Nouse with details of their experience at the CBI. They were on placement in an overseas office and had raised concerns about the work environment with the Careers and Placement team multiple times prior to reports of workplace misconduct
reported by The Guardian in April 2023. During meetings with the Careers and Placements team over the course of the year, the student discussed ending their placement, stating that they were uncomfortable at work.

On 3 April 2023, when The Guardian reported that women had faced sexual assault and rape, as well as drug use at official events, the student emailed the Careers and Placements team confirming that they wished to end their placement, wanting to know the implications of this decision. They received a response stating that, as the allegations were still under investigation, and as a safeguarding issue regarding personal experience of sexual assault had not been raised, the student was advised to carefully consider their intention to end their placement prematurely.

The CBI suspended all policy and membership activity in April 2023, following reports by The Guardian. The UK Government announced they would be pausing their CBI membership on 5 April 2023. The University of York announced the suspension of
their own CBI membership via Twitter on 21 April 2023, stating “following serious allegations made against the Confederation of British Industry, we have written to the CBI President to confirm we have suspended our membership with immediate effect. We have a responsibility to ensure that all of our partners and collaborations are in complete alignment with our values and mission as a university for public good.”

Responding to Nouse, The University of York said that whilst they cannot comment on individual cases, they are confident students on placement are “well supported” by a supervisor who checks in with them and their line manager. They also noted
that students have access to University support services whilst they are on placement.

The CBI also responded to Nouse, highlighting a press release which detailed their new prospectus: ‘A renewed CBI: For our members, our stakeholders and our people’.

Speaking to Nouse about their experience, the student started by explaining their feelings at the start of their placement. They were excited to travel overseas, stating “it was one of the greatest placements that I could have secured with the University.”

However, the feelings of excitement were short-lived and quickly changed upon arriving at their office: “from the very beginning, I was
second-guessing my choice [...] [the Careers and Placements team] were trying to present this opportunity as a very great opportunity [...] but at the same time, I felt that they were trying too hard."

They continued, “from the onset, I felt like this very small office with very few people involved, it didn’t feel right. Within the first ten days of my placement, I communicated my concerns with the Careers and Placements team.”

On the details of their concerns, they described “the introduction that they did in my first week, it just felt fake. I’m not going to lie, it felt fake, it felt very artificial. The job that I was doing, it didn’t make any sense at all. It didn’t have any meaningful impact.”

When describing the CBI as a whole, the student said that “on paper, it was the greatest organisation in the UK and you can see that, you can read that [...] but when I started working for them, I just realised that something was off. The senior leaders and management team failed to show any type of compassion”.

Furthermore, the student raised concerns to the Careers and Placements team around the behaviour of a member of the senior leadership team at CBI who they had regular direct contact with. Throughout the interview, the behaviour was described as
“toxic”, “micromanaging” and failing to facilitate a constructive work environment. As a result, when that member of the senior leadership team was present, the office was “so quiet that you could hear a pin drop” as colleagues didn’t feel comfortable having
conversations with each other in their presence. This was in addition to an office set-up which left the student feeling isolated and constantly under observation.

The student focused on a one-to-one meeting with the member of the senior leadership team in November 2022. In the meeting, the student was given feedback about their performance, which focused on their “communication and my teamwork with other employees, specifically that I was not engaged that much and that I was not taking initiative.”

When asked about how this meeting made them feel, the student said “honestly, they were right, not going to lie. I really struggled at the beginning, so they were 100 percent right. It was the way that it was communicated to me, it didn’t feel right. It was not from a line manager” but from the member of the senior leadership team. They summarised the meeting saying that “it really upset me, it did really upset me.”

The student also revealed that in the meeting the member of the senior leadership team convinced them that they were on a probationary period. The student said “that was introduced in that meeting actually, I was not aware of that.” The student was convinced that they “should increase [their] performance, I should perform better by the beginning of December, otherwise I would receive a formal warning from HR saying that I should leave the organisation because I failed
my probationary period.”

A few days later, the student realised that “I wasn’t on a probationary period because I was under a placement contract and not an employment contract. The probationary period was not mentioned on my contract and it was introduced in that one-to-one meeting.”

The concerns regarding the one-to-one meeting were raised with the Careers and Placements team via email and in a meeting, with the student encouraged to continue their placement. The student said “they were really stressed that I might fail the year” and that a member of the Careers and Placements team reached out to the student’s line manager who facilitated weekly meetings to monitor performance. When asked about the Careers and Placements team at that point, the student said “I can comfortably say that at that stage they were really supportive. Later on [in April], they just changed. They didn’t provide any support.”

The student disclosed that they are currently supported in their studies while at University through a Student Support Plan (SSP), with additional support from a psychologist, the details of which were passed on to the CBI via the Careers and Placements team.

The student advised that while their line manager was aware of any required reasonable adjustments, they believed that the member of the senior leadership team was either unaware, or did not acknowledge the additional support which may be required. The student stated that they asked “can we change the set-up for example because I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t feel supported”, however no changes were made.

The student stressed that compassion was rarely shown by CBI management, with the only experience of compassionate engagement being when the student was required to return home for a funeral. Seeking further support networks, the student noted that they reached out to a former placement student who had been in the same work environment, saying “they reassured me that the way I was feeling was very common in this workplace. They felt the exact same thing one year ago, so that provided me comfort that I was doing the right thing.”

After the concerns in November, the student expressed that they were feeling more comfortable in their placement from January to March 2023. They expressed that their mind- set was “I don’t like this work environment but I can still get something out of this placement.” Expanding on this period, the student said that “in those three months, I developed myself, I said it is what it is, so lets make sure to get something out of this experience.”

It was in April that the student reached their “breaking point, if you want to call it that”. On 3 April 2023, The Guardian released an investigation into the CBI which found that “more than a dozen women claim to have been victims of various forms of sexual misconduct by senior figures at the Confederation of British Industry, including one who alleges she was raped at a staff party on a boat on the River Thames.”

In response to this investigation, also on 3 April, the student emailed the Careers and Placements team stating that “following new allegations regarding sexual misconduct at CBI [...] I am emailing to inform you that I am seriously thinking of ending my placement earlier” linking three articles detailing the allegations of misconduct at the CBI.

In response to this email on the same day, a member of the Careers and Placements team responded that “whilst it is disturbing news and I fully understand your concerns regarding the allegations, this appears to still be under investigation, but please let me know if you have experienced anything relating to this article, as obviously we at the University do have a duty of care, and want to know your placement is a safe working area.”

The same member of staff sent a follow-up email to the student on 6 April, one day after the UK government paused their CBI membership, stating that “With regard to the allegations about CBI, I have checked with the university, the view is these are unproven, and they do not make values based decisions, it is up to the individual regarding their standpoint, this would be different if a safeguarding issue was raised.”

The staff member then wrote that “You have done so well sticking it out up until now please consider your decisions carefully.”
The student wrote back the following day saying that “my decision is final and I plan to leave CBI” a month earlier than planned. The student continued, “there have been several issues with my placement throughout the year, including lack of clarity around objectives, failure to make reasonable adjustments and toxic behaviour in the workplace which have had a significant impact on my wellbeing [...] The new allegations are just the icing on the cake.”

Importantly, the student noted that the University did not contact them in the first instance after the allegations were reported, instead they were the party which initiated correspondence over the reports, with the student feeling that “they [The Careers and Placements team] should have practically approached me and said ‘what is going on? We saw those news articles, are you okay?’ They should have actively approached me instead of me approaching them.”

A spokesperson for the University of York responded to Nouse’s request for comment, saying that “We are sorry to hear of the experiences from one of our students. Whilst we are unable to comment on individual cases, we are confident that our placement students are well supported by a supervisor, who checks-in regularly not only with the student but also the line manager in the host organisation, in order to discuss any concerns or issues.

“Whilst on placement, students are employees of their host organisation, but also retain access to the Student Support Services offered by the University. Supervisors also help the student to prepare for the assessed element of a placement year, which includes reflecting on their experiences and evaluating the implications of these for their future careers.” The University announced the suspension of their CBI membership on 21 April 2023, over two weeks after the UK Government.

On 24 April, Brian McBride, president of the CBI, published an open letter to its 190,000 members following an independent investigation by the law firm Fox Williams, which was appointed by the CBI board. He wrote of a “sense of shame, for having so badly let down the enthusiastic, ambitious and passionate people who came to work at the CBI. They rightly expected to be able to do so in a safe environment, and we failed them.”

He continued that “our systems of culture management, harm prevention and eradication were insufficient [...] We failed to filter out culturally toxic people during the hiring process.”

The student participated in the external investigation and reported their experiences to Human Resources. Speaking about that decision, they detailed how they had spoken with trusted colleagues from across the CBI, who reassured them that they were “not the only person who has experienced those things, a lot of people have cried before”. Ultimately, they spoke of the decision as “not really a choice, it was a decision that I had to make.”

Regarding the allegations themselves, and based on their personal experience, the student said “personally, I was really not surprised” about workplace misconduct at the CBI.

The CBI responded to Nouse about the allegations of a “toxic” work environment, providing a press release which highlighted their ‘programme of change’ following a period of listening after the investigations by The Guardian were published. In the press
release, available publicly, CBI Director General Rain Newton-Smith said that “Our members and colleagues have spoken. We have listened, we have acted and we are taking accountability. An accelerated programme of change on people, governance and culture is already underway with a more focused, collaborative approach on our purpose, lifting up the voices of our members.”

Since the communication at the beginning of April surrounding the end of their placement, the student had not received any contact from the Careers and Placements team at the time of speaking to Nouse, which was approximately two months after The Guardian’s investigation was released. The student emphasised that “I ended my placement today and I didn’t receive an email from the Careers and Placements team saying ‘you ended your placement today, is there something that you’d like to share with us?’ I didn’t receive anything at all. At least be professional and send an email. I don’t think it’s much trouble to send an email.”

Summarising their experience with the Careers and Placements team, the student said “They ignored my comments, I specifically told them that I’m not in a safe working environment. That I’ve been subject to toxic work practices and I’ve seen other people being bullied, I was bullied [...] during my time and the University decided that I’ve done an excellent job there so far so continue, like stick it out.”

The student stressed that since the April reports, they have received excellent communication and support from their department and academic supervisor, who have provided them with additional support and escalated their concerns with the Careers and Placements team directly.

When Nouse spoke to the student on their final day working for the CBI, they were celebrating that they were no longer working there. There was a sense of jubilation and relief from the student throughout the interview. When asked about how they felt, they said “I’m proud of myself that I was able to successfully complete such a difficult year, that’s all.”

The last two months at the CBI had been “better than before. I was working from home so I only had to go to the office for one or two days so I was able to avoid those environments. It was the best time at CBI”.

The student said laughingly that going forwards “I’m not going to use them as my reference, I’m going to be honest.” More seriously, they noted, “but I can turn this [experience] around and say, well I’m resilient. I’ve worked in an organisation that is really toxic and has been on The Guardian and other newspapers for almost four or five months now, and I still successfully completed my placement. So I can definitely turn it around and say I’m a very resilient person, if I want something or have something in mind, I can achieve that. Really proud of that fact, but not proud of working at CBI”

In reference to returning to York for their final year of their undergraduate degree, the student accepted that “I might not receive much support from the Careers and Placements team [...] but besides that, honestly, I’m looking forward to it. I hope that my final year will not be as bad as my placement year.”