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From politics to professional football, acting and the media, every corridor of power has been exposed, particularly in recent weeks, as rife with abuse and exploitation.

A report by Opinium Research indicates that one in five women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Fifty-seven per cent of those women have felt intimidated by the way they have been spoken to at work.

The media has yet to pick up on allegations of behavioural impropriety in the pensions industry, but it is difficult to conceive that harassment and bullying do not take place in pensions. Experts are divided on the safeguards in place against inappropriate behaviour on trustee boards.

Trustee boards are composed of individuals with separate codes of conduct pertaining to their places of employment. Guidelines exist for trustee behaviour, but they are predominantly concerned with the proper discharge of duties in the interest of scheme members.

Trustee chair should set culture of governance body

According to the Pensions Regulator’s defined contribution code, fit and proper checks should be carried out on new trustees when they join the board.

The code states that trustees are “to conduct themselves with honesty and integrity, including in matters that arise outside their trusteeship”.

A spokesperson for the regulator said: “Our code of practice and guidance already make clear that we expect high standards from trustees and that their fitness and propriety should be considered when appointed, and regularly reviewed.”

Luke Hildyard, policy lead for stewardship and corporate governance at the Pensions and Lifetime Savings Association, suggested that conduct should be built into scheme risk management and advised trustees to look to guidelines set by sponsoring employers.

“The role of the scheme chair in setting the tone for the culture and conduct of the governance body is critical to ensuring the probity of other board members – culture and conduct of the trustee board should also be considered as part of the scheme’s risk management process,” he said.

“In addition, the HR policies and whistleblowing procedures of the sponsoring employer may also be useful resources for trustees to draw upon,” he added.

Divergence can create issues

Behavioural guidelines drawn up by employers may suffice for the purpose of creating a respectful working environment on trustee boards.

John Gordon, counsel at law firm Ashurst, said that in the pensions industry ,“all employees of employing companies or service providers would probably already be covered by appropriate guidelines that would impose rules on their conduct”.

He said he was not aware of trustee boards that have felt the need to put in place similar codes of conduct.

Problems can occur, however, where the various codes observed by the different members of trustee boards diverge.

Joanne Sefton, barrister at Mitchell Law, said there can be divergence in codes of conduct around alcohol consumption and socialising with a workplace element to it.

“None of these things [are] wrong in [themselves], but they can create an environment where people can get into difficulties,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean that one set of rules is better than the other, but there is nuanced ambiguity there,” Sefton added.

No formal code of conduct for trustees

Christina Bowyer, director at HR Trustees, said that there is currently no formal code of conduct for trustees. She said background checks on new trustees focus on financial matters, and do not involve a character assessment.

Bowyer has not witnessed sexual harassment in a trustee board environment, and said she is unconvinced by the
need for additional trustee board-specific behavioural guidelines.

“We as professional trustees are expected to operate in a natural and professional manner, both in terms of our duties to our members but also in terms of the way in which we conduct ourselves as individuals around the board table,” she said.

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