A culture of sexism – including acts of inappropriate sexual behaviour – is festering at the heart of the Rugby Football Union, a special investigation by the Daily Telegraph has revealed.

The three-month investigation, which has involved obtaining candid testimonies from a variety of sources across the governing body - including former RFU senior executives - has exposed an alarming prevalence of sexist attitudes and behaviour.

The findings will come as a major blow to the governing body at a time when they are attempting to implement a diversity and inclusion strategic plan and grow the women's game, all amid the backdrop of the international #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.

All those interviewed by the Daily Telegraph asked to remain anonymous but gave consent for their testimonies to be published in order to highlight the problems and heighten the drive for change.

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The key findings include:

* One former female employee claiming she was "inappropriately patted" by a senior member of staff but felt powerless to complain.
* One former council member being reprimanded by the then RFU president after a series of complaints were made by female members of staff about inappropriate behaviour.
*Several female staff members feeling they could not raise complaints about sexist behaviour or inappropriate use of language by council members as they feared they would be seen as troublemakers.
* Consumption of alcohol at meetings and conferences creating a "party atmosphere" that led to unacceptable behaviour or language.
* Claims that opposition from a "significant rump" of senior figures were key in delaying the merger with the Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) until 2010.

The Telegraph's investigation also revealed that the RFU's human resources department felt compelled to make a video to show staff and council members featuring a variety of complaints from employees about their treatment at Twickenham.

The presentation, based on Bob Dylan's famous music video for his song 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' shows around 20 RFU employees holding up cards describing the negative impact of the language and behaviour of others had on their working life at Twickenham.

There was also criticism of language directed at older members of staff, part-time employees and those from an LGBT and ethnic minority community.

The video was also shown to all staff and the RFU board, as well as the RFU council. After it was shown to the council at a meeting in February, the governing body's HR director, Lucinda Pullinger, called for members to change their behaviour and cease using inappropriate language when talking to the RFU's female workforce, who had made a number of complaints about being shown a lack of respect.

The plea did not go down well with some members of the council who found the instruction about the use of language ill-conceived and a sign that the staff at Twickenham were out of touch with the realities of life in grassroots rugby.

However, for one former female RFU employee, the initiative came too late.

"There has definitely been sexism and inappropriate behaviour from male counterparts within the RFU," she said. "If you were out at a social event, which was a working engagement, sometimes you would go out for dinner with someone from the club and representatives from the RFU and certainly I had two incidents when I was 'patted' inappropriately.

"I certainly made sure I wasn't too close to certain people on occasions. It happened twice. I wouldn't call it groping but 'patted in the wrong place'. That was by a senior employee.

"I never reported it because I had experienced it before and back then nobody really thought about it. It was just something you got on with. It has to stop and we need more people to speak out."

It was not the only case of allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour. RFU sources said there was an historic case which occurred before 2012 that involved one council member having to be spoken to by the president at the time about his behaviour after several complaints were made by female members of staff. He left the council at the end of the year.

Another former female employee described how alcohol-fuelled nights can often lead to awkward situations for staff members.

"One of the problems is that the council members are there because it is their hobby and their passion and they do not perceive it as work. But for those employees in the office, it is work," she said.

"There is also a lot of socialising, particular around council dinners and matches where people will have a few drinks. For them it is just a party but for the staff it isn't so there is a slight disconnect which I think causes some of the problems.

"If you were at a party and some person twice your age came up to you, and, you know, you would probably just walk away but it is very difficult to do that in a work environment.

"People would say things that made me feel slightly uncomfortable - the sorts of comments that if you were in a pub or at a party it would not bother you because you wouldn't know them.

"But being in the workplace environment makes you feel uncomfortable. You can't tell someone to 'f--- off' because they know who you are.

She added: "It was definitely a generational thing, it was definitely the older ones. They would just be disrespectful or just not considerate of people's feelings.

"It is just a lack of education. It did just not occur to people that their behaviour was inappropriate and also it wasn't their workplace. It was seen as their fun place, like going to the pub."

The testimonies also spoke of female employees also facing sexist language and attitudes when attending regional events at the constituent bodies of the RFU.

"I have even heard examples about very senior females in the organisation who have gone along to another international match and they have thought she was the wife of someone," said one former employee. "And they have said 'no I am actually in X position in the leadership team.'"

Others claimed that female employees had found it harder to progress in their careers than their male counterparts.

"I think if I had been a male I think my chances of career progression would have progressed further for sure. I was pigeon-holed and would like to think it wasn't down to a lack of skill and knowledge," she said.

"I don't think I could have got any further than I got at the RFU because of being a female to be perfectly honest. I found the whole way through my career that women have a much tougher time than our male counterparts and that is not just from getting pay rises and career progression."

One former RFU female employee called for the introduction of clear directives detailing appropriate standards of behaviour and severe sanctions, including expulsion for those who transgress.

"I think there needs to be like an amnesty really, people need to be encouraged to speak out and feel it is a safe place if there is something, because it will not stop unless the issues are raised," she said.

"Crucially what they will need to see is something happen because of a result of what they have said. Because if it just gets swept under the carpet, then nothing will change.

"There needs to be a really clear communication as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and if this happens, it needs to be reported and this is what will happen. And it needs to be followed through.

"And that communication also needs to go out the council members and people sitting on committees and crucially out to the counties. They need to say this isn't appropriate behaviour and we have told our staff and this is what will happen.

"You would need to see that you could actually remove a council member or committee county member for doing that. If you can't remove them it just makes it more and more difficult for the person who reported them.

"The whole game needs to change and it should change. It is all about making clubhouses more attractive places for women to be so they don't feel uncomfortable.

"The game needs to say this isn't acceptable and if it happens it will be stamped it out."

Responding to the Telegraph's allegations, an RFU spokeswoman said: "We are absolutely committed to ensuring that rugby is a progressive, modern and inclusive game, with strong values at heart.

"We are committed to our Diversity and Inclusion strategy and plan which we are now delivering across volunteers, employees and our fanbase to ensure rugby is an inclusive sport, at every level of the game.

"The RFU is working very hard to make sure everybody feels welcome within the sport, and that rugby can flourish everywhere as a game for everyone."

'The women were put on a separate table to the men in council meetings'

A former Rugby Football Union executive described the sexist behaviour they had witnessed to the Daily Telegraph.

What did I see? Well, what I didn't see was Harvey Weinstein-type allegations – groping or sexual harassment - but I did at times see things that were sexist by today's standards.

By sexist I would say usually in attitude and language. Condescending terms like 'sweetheart or darling' or those type of things which have been carried forward from what has historically been a macho game and the clubhouse attitude that has not moved with the times.

Some of the council simply have not seen the change in diversity and inclusion in the workplace coming because they are still broadly a generation that have been left behind by these developments.

You have a whole set of behaviours that they think are the norm, and were the norm, depressingly so, in the 1960s and 1970s. So bit of it I think is driven by the demographic. You are still talking about a group of 50, 60 and 70 year old males.

There were also whole sets of historical protocols in council meetings that are inherently sexist.

For many years the only female in the room was taking the minutes. The Women's Rugby Union representative would only be brought in to give a brief presentation on the women's game and if you are women in the room you were put on a separate table to the men.

Thankfully some things have changed but in my personal experience there is a small group who still have not seen that the workplace has moved on and do not see why they should.

These attitudes would make me worry for the future of the game. They have to go. You need to have diversity or an intention to be diverse to attract people to the club game.

Rugby is competing with so many sports and non-sporting things kids can do. If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got – you will only get people who feel at home in that environment and that will not be enough to grow the game.

It is naïve and foolish of any organisation not to take inclusion and diversity seriously. There is a whole body of work that says a more diverse organisation is a more productive organisation.

To be fair to the RFU, broadly they have been progressive in growing the women's game.

And in the Twickenham-based staff there has always been a reasonably broad gender diversity.

All of these initiatives are great and I think the RFU should do more of them because the base that they are appealing to, such as Millennials, really think this is important and will respond well to it.

The RFU is not just driving the game but are also a figurehead for Britain when they are such a high-profile governing body.

In my view the dissenting voices in the council should either learn to put up or shut up - or change, which would be better.

Part of me wonders if there will be truly be change in the council until the next generation comes through properly and take over those roles in a meaningful manner. I think when they are the majority not the minority then I think you will finally get there.