‘Toxic’ Oxfam culture allowed sexual misconduct allegations to go unchecked, review finds

Experts highlight HR’s role in gathering ‘intelligence on the ground’ as independent report criticises charity

An independent review has slammed Oxfam for not having a central HR management system or the necessary safeguarding policies in place to prevent abuse or bullying.

The Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change (ICSMACC) found a “toxic work environment” within the charity marked by “elitism… racism and colonial behaviour” as well as bullying.

In a 30-page interim report, Listening to People: Rebuilding Trust, the ICSMACC said a lack of “robust policies and procedures” led to a culture in which sexual misconduct and harassment could be misunderstood or even unaddressed.

The commission heard staff were highly critical of management behaviour and company procedures for dealing with bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, and found the organisation lacked a centralised HR management system, trusted safeguarding processes and culture of accountability.

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It also said the lack of a centralised HR system meant there was no holistic oversight of complaints or reports of misconduct that came in through the charity’s multiple reporting channels, and staff appraisals or disciplinaries may have been made “on the basis of incomplete information”.

The independent commission was established by Oxfam in May 2018 to investigate the charity’s culture following last year’s scandal in which allegations were raised of sexual abuse by workers in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. 

Oxfam has welcomed the report as an “important step” to help “tackle the root causes of abuse”.

Speaking to People Management, Peter Reeve, chair of the Charities HR Network, said Oxfam’s case highlighted the importance of trust between staff, management and HR in the third sector.

He said all organisations had staff who were “disenfranchised or grumpy” with management, but the third sector this was often exacerbated by the additional dynamic that an organisational good cause created. “When you criticise people [in the sector] you almost get into a competition about who cares most about the cause,” he said.

“It’s a dynamic in this sector and it actually creates a management concern because you have to go out there and remind people to focus on their role.”

Reeve, who is also head of HR at the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said HR played a critical role in gathering “intelligence on the ground” to identify issues, challenge leaders where concerns are raised and to deal with issues accordingly. 

“It’s about having the relationships with staff, senior management and the CEO to be able to raise these concerns, as well as empowering managers to get and give feedback on key issues.” Reeve said.

The ICSMACC report highlighted a number of areas for improvement, including that HR strengthen leadership training in safeguarding, managing power and building positive behaviour. It also said leadership training must include modules on conducting self-assessments and cultivating emotional intelligence.

In a statement, Oxfam said it had “increased the number of staff safeguarding experts” across its business in the past year and rolled out stronger charity-wide policies and practices in “safe recruitment”.

Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International executive director, said the report was an “important piece of work at a critical time” for the charity. “It is painfully clear that Oxfam is not immune from sexual and other forms of abuse that stem from the abuse of power,” she said.

“The vast majority of our work is done with respect and in safety and delivered with great impact for people living in poverty, but we know we still need to do much more to improve ourselves.”

She added Oxfam would use the recommendations in the report to bolster their ongoing improvements and create an organisation that has “zero tolerance for anyone who abuses their power over others”.

The ICSMACC’s full report will be published in May.

The government’s charity watchdog the Charity Commission is also running a separate statutory inquiry into Oxfam, but revealed at a Safeguarding Summit last March this was not an isolated issue. It said it had received 80 reports of current and historical causes of safeguarding concerns spanning 26 charities.