Save the Children’s handling of harassment complaints ‘let down’ staff

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The way Save the Children UK handled harassment allegations made against senior employees had a “corrosive impact” on its internal culture and “amounted to mismanagement” in certain areas, the Charity Commission has concluded.

In its report following an inquiry into the way The Save the Children Fund handled staff complaints about misconduct and harassment by senior figures in 2012 and 2015, the regulator found the charity failed to follow its own complaints processes by deciding to deal with the allegations in an informal manner.

Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, said: “Save the Children UK let complainants and the public down. It must work hard now to rebuild its reputation.

“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.”

Baroness Stowell of Beeston, chair of the Charity Commission, said: “When allegations of harassment were made against senior Save the Children UK staff, this had to be taken very seriously. This is not only about treating complainants with the seriousness and respect they deserve, it is also about demonstrating that no one gets a pass because they are doing important work or are motivated by the desire to help some of the most vulnerable people around the world.”

The inquiry, which involved interviewing around 40 individuals and examining more than 15,000 documents, looked into complaints made against two senior staff – its former chief executive Justin Forsyth and ex-director of policy and advocacy, Brendan Cox.

In 2012, an employee complained to its HR team that Forsyth had behaved inappropriately. The charity and the employee agreed to deal with the matter informally, counter to its own disciplinary procedures.

No investigation into the complaint was undertaken and the complainant received a handwritten apology from then CEO and was assured that the matter would be recorded on his HR file.

Most of the trustees were not informed that an informal complaint had been made against the chief executive.

The same complainant, as well as another, raised issues about Forsyth’s behaviour again in 2015. Both complainants said they did not want to raise a formal grievance. The board of trustees were not informed about the complaints.

When the first complainant found out that another employee had also made allegations after she raised them in 2012, she raised a grievance about the way her first complaint was dealt with.

The Commission said not informing the charity’s trustees amounted to “mismanagement” and said trustees should be promptly informed about concerns about the behaviour of the CEO in order to protect the charity’s interests.

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

However, the inquiry found some aspects of the charity’s complaints handling process worked well. In 2015, when an employee raised a complaint about Cox, trustees were informed and a disciplinary process was begun. However, before any formal hearing could take place Cox submitted his resignation.

The report says: “The Inquiry finds the steps [in the case against Cox]… were responsible and as would be expected of any large charitable employer where concerns of this nature were being raised. They acted immediately, consulted HR, applied its policies, took external legal advice and instigated a disciplinary process promptly. The Commission also notes that the trustees were involved in decision making. Given the seniority of the employee, that was an appropriate course.”

The Commission said 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”.

Current Save the Children CEO Kevin Watkins said: “I unreservedly apologise to the women affected by the behaviour of these two senior executives. The harm they suffered was compounded by a failure to respond appropriately to complaints and then by our defensive handling of media inquiries about the cases.

“Our staff are passionate about our work for children. They have a right to expect the highest standards of support and protection. I’m determined to work with them to build an organisational culture that reflects our values.”

Interim chair Charles Steel, added: “The trustees and leadership fully accept these findings and we are profoundly sorry that we let the women and our organisation down. The inquiry makes clear that every part of our organisation must be held to account for our duty of care to staff and for living up to our values. While we are making progress in improving our culture, we have more work to do, and this will continue to be a critical priority for our organisation.”

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