Save the Children UK let down complainants and public over handling of allegations of workplace harassment

5 Mar 2020 04:15 PM

Charity regulator criticises children’s charity over failures in its response to complaints about former CEO and highlights "serious weaknesses" in workplace culture.

The Charity Commission has criticised failures in Save the Children UK’s response to allegations of workplace harassment made by staff members against the charity’s former chief executive.

In a report published yesterday, the Commission (the regulator for charities in England and Wales) finds that there were weaknesses in the charity’s workplace culture, and that Save the Children UK let down the complainants, its staff and the wider public. The charity’s handling of the complaints was so poor in certain respects that it amounted to mismanagement. These allegations, and the way in which the charity responded, had a corrosive impact on its internal culture.

The report finds a wide range of failings

The Commission began investigating The Save the Children Fund (Save the Children UK) in 2018, when the charity came under public scrutiny over its record on staff culture and morale and its handling of complaints against two former senior staff members, including the former CEO. At that time, the regulator was concerned about the “accuracy and integrity” of statements the charity made to media and complainants about its past handling of incidents.

Yesterday’s report acknowledges the pressure Save the Children UK was under, but is also critical of the charity’s public statements at the time, one of which was “not wholly accurate”, and says the charity’s overall approach was “unduly defensive”, falling short of the high standards expected of charities.

The report is also critical of the charity’s failure to identify the chief executive as the subject of harassment complaints when it made a serious incident report to the regulator in 2015. The Commission says this amounted to the omission of “material facts”, and to mismanagement.

“Serious weaknesses in workplace culture”

The charity itself instigated two separate reviews into culture and morale; in 2015, it instructed the Lewis Silkin law firm to, among other things, conduct an investigation into its workplace culture. That report stressed that there were significant employee engagement issues at the charity and noted that the “biggest behavioural cues” for staff come from what their leaders are seen to role model and to tolerate.

That report called on the charity’s trustees and senior executives to ensure the charity’s mission and values were consistently reflected in the behaviour of senior people, as internal culture and behaviours “directly affects public trust and confidence in the charity”.

Regulator acknowledges elements of good practice

The inquiry acknowledges some aspects of good practice in the way the charity dealt with complaints. It finds the charity recognised the seriousness of the complaints made and says there is no evidence of deliberate attempts to brush complaints under the carpet; nor did the inquiry find evidence of inappropriate involvement in the handling of complaints by the charity’s then Chair. The regulator says the charity did the right thing in instigating two separate reviews of workplace culture – the Lewis Silkin review in 2015 and the Shale Review in 2018.

The Commission also recognises that the charity has since taken steps to improve the charity’s workplace culture and respond to the external reviews’ findings of significant problems around employee engagement.

Lessons for other charities to learn

The regulator expects charities to manage employment matters themselves and it hopes the exceptional circumstances that prompted it to investigate Save the Children UK will not be repeated in other charities.

However, the inquiry notes that this case raises important lessons for all charities, notably on the crucial role of the behaviour of senior leaders in creating appropriate workplace cultures that meet wider expectations of charity.

Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, yesterday said:

Charities should be distinct from other types of organisations in their attitude and behaviour, in their motivations and methods. The public rightly expect that; so do the majority of people working in charities, who deserve a workplace culture that is healthy, supportive, and safe.

Creating that culture is not just about putting the right systems and processes in place; it also requires leaders who model the highest standards of behaviour and conduct, and who are held to account properly and consistently when they fall short.

This responsibility is especially pronounced in large, household name charities: their leaders are powerful, and highly respected. The impact of failures in leadership in such charities can also have implications for public trust and confidence beyond the charity itself. So they must use that power responsibly, and in a way that reflects legitimate expectations of charity.

Save the Children UK let complainants and the public down. It must work hard now to rebuild its reputation.

Read the full report, setting out all the detail of the inquiry’s findings and conclusions.

Summary timeline – full details in inquiry report

2012

March 2015

August 2015

September 2015

December 2015

2018

Notes to editors

  1. The matters under investigation related exclusively to issues around staff conduct towards other staff members and workplace culture; none of the Commission’s findings call into question the Save the Children UK’s charitable work.
  2. As part of its inquiry, the Commission conducted formal interviews with around 40 individuals, and examined over 15,000 documents relating to the charity’s processes and conduct of internal staffing investigations.

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