Save the Children UK “let down” staff and the public over its handling of workplace harassment claims against senior staff, according to a damning report by the Charity Commission.
The regulator for charities in England and Wales found “serious failures” in how the children’s charity dealt with allegations made by staff members against the charity’s former chief executive, Justin Forsyth.
In its report, the commission found Save the Children UK failed to consistently follow its own processes when employees made allegations of inappropriate conduct against Forsyth in 2012 and 2015. Additionally, it found the charity’s decision to deal with those complaints informally, rather than to investigate them fully, ran counter to the charity’s own disciplinary procedures.
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The regulator also called out weaknesses in the charity’s workplace culture, and said the handling of complaints was “so poor in certain respects that it amounted to mismanagement”, and that these allegations, and the way the charity responded, had a “corrosive impact on its internal culture”.
Save the Children UK said it “accepted in full” the report’s findings and apologised "unreservedly" to the women affected.
In the report, Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, said charities should be “distinct” from other types of organisations in their attitude and behaviour as they are held to a higher standard by the public, their service users and their staff.
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“The public rightly expects that and so do the majority of people working in charities, who deserve a workplace culture that is healthy, supportive and safe,” Stephenson said.
“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.”
Stephenson added that the impact of failures in leadership in charities and poor workplace culture could also have implications for public trust and confidence beyond the organisation itself.
Andrew Willis, head of legal at HR-inform, said companies in sectors that involve vulnerable people may find the resulting reputational damage from failing to properly investigate allegations of misconduct could do more harm than any tribunal could.
He said it was imperative full investigations were conducted into any complaint of harassment, regardless of the seniority of the individuals involved, and that all procedures followed policies.
“As seen here, trying to avoid a formal procedure to make the problem go away is not a long-term solution,” Willis explained. “Not only can not dealing with a specific issue of harassment now lead to difficult questions being asked at a later date, it can also encourage any perpetrators who have got away with their conduct to do it again, something that could be very bad news for the organisation and place staff at risk.”
The Charity Commission investigation was launched in 2018 following allegations of inappropriate behaviour between 2012 and 2015 against Forsyth and the charity’s former policy director, Brendan Cox – the husband of murdered MP Jo Cox.
The regulator said it “hopes the exceptional circumstances” that prompted it to investigate Save the Children UK would not be repeated in other charitable organisations. However, the inquiry stated that the case raised important lessons for all charities, notably on the crucial role of senior leaders in creating appropriate workplace cultures that meet the wider organisation’s expectations.
Despite the charity’s past failures, the commission recognised that Save the Children UK has taken steps to improve its workplace culture and respond to an external reviews’ findings of significant problems around employee engagement.