NEWS IN FOCUS: Charity sector feels the effects of the bully boys

Annie Kelly and Mathew Little

In a week when Samaritans staff accused the charity of having a culture of fear and intimidation, Annie Kelly and Mathew Little discover that it is not the only third sector organisation to fall victim to bullying.

A dark cloud was cast over the Samaritans' 50th anniversary last week after the emotional support charity was accused by its own staff of perpetuating a culture of bullying and intimidation.

The birthday celebrations were designed to thank the charity's 18,500 volunteers for their contribution to the Samaritans' work, and for helping it become one of the best-known and respected emotional support services in the UK. But current and ex-employees at the charity contacted Third Sector in order to expose the culture of "fear and intimidation" they say is rampant throughout the organisation.

But while these allegations are nothing less than shocking, particularly in a sector that is supposed to champion goodwill to others, further investigation reveals that Samaritans staff are by no means isolated in their protest.

According to Tim Field, author of Bully in Sight and executive director of anti-bullying charity the Field Foundation, bullying is rife in the voluntary sector. Charity workers are the fastest growing group of callers to Field's UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line. They account for between 6 and 8 per cent of all calls, behind social workers, health workers and teachers. Field believes that, at a conservative estimate, up to 20 per cent of all charities harbour bullying managers.

The Andrea Adams Trust, a charity that works to combat workplace bullying, says one in five of all people in work are bullied every day. Research by the Health and Safety Executive last October found that bullying is the single greatest grievance for workers across Europe, above even pay levels.

Ironically, it may be charities' intrinsic altruism that makes them fertile territory for the bullying mindset. "Charities are a major attraction," says Field. "Bullies crave power, control and domination. Charities have plenty of vulnerable clients and lots of workers and volunteers committed to working with those clients, who are themselves vulnerable through the manipulation of their emotions, especially guilt."

He adds that in the voluntary sector, bullies are more likely to be women than men because the charity sector tends to attract women who regard themselves as sensitive and caring, but are "oblivious to their dysfunctional and aggressive personality".

A major bone of contention for staff at the Samaritans is that senior managers don't take internal complaints seriously and that there are inadequate mechanisms in place to deal effectively with official complaints of bullying.

In one case, full-time staff complained that the hearing of a serious complaint against a senior manager's professional conduct was delayed for 11 weeks. They also claim that they were never officially informed of the outcome, though this is disputed by the charity, which says the grievance was handled in line with its internal procedures.

"Staff often feel that nobody gives a damn about our feelings," said one employee. "This causes serious distress among full-timers who often work long, stressful hours for a charity that works to emotionally support others, but which is allowing workplace bullying to go on."

Simon Armson, chief executive of the Samaritans, says that the charity takes complaints of mistreatment very seriously and does not condone bullying in any form.

"The way we deal with individual cases depends on the nature of the complaint," he said. "Whenever a complaint is made it's very important that we look at it carefully and ensure every angle is covered before any conclusion is reached. This takes time and resources, and it's conceivable that at the end of this process not everyone is satisfied with the outcome."

What is clear is that friction between full-time staff and senior managers is not being effectively resolved. Employees are now demanding that a policy on bullying and harassment be put in place to force senior staff to respond to complaints through an official framework. If this doesn't happen, they warn that more valuable and talented staff will leave the charity.

"People are already quitting because they feel they can't work for a charity that does nothing to stop a culture of fear and intimidation," said one source. "What makes it worse is that all of the full-time staff are committed to the cause and the people the Samaritans help, so it's a great shame that they are not being listened to."

For managers to recognise that bullying is happening requires an understanding that it is more than the occasional bad hair day, says Field. "Bullying is a constant stream of nit-picking, fault-finding, trivial criticism, freezing out, singling out, micro-management and humiliation," he says.

In most cases, one person in particular is picked on. "The bullying you see is usually the tip of the iceberg. There will often be financial misappropriation as well - diverting money for some personal benefit."

Many cases of bullying in charities will fester indefinitely because managers lack the experience to deal with them. "They are out of their depth when it comes to dealing with discipline and grievance procedures," says Field.

The answer is to introduce an anti-bullying policy. "Bullying should be considered in the same light as sexual or racial discrimination," says Matthew Witheridge, operations manager at the Andrea Adams Trust. "An anti-bullying policy merely means a slight extension of existing grievance procedures."

At present there is no law against bullying, despite a Dignity at Work Bill to introduce one being put before Parliament for the fourth year running. So the onus is on charities to stop it internally. Field says that the anti-bullying policy should include descriptions of bullying behaviour, the tactics used and psychological profiles of serial bullies. These should be widely disseminated to staff.

"Charities should also publicise levels of staff turnover, sickness, absence and grievances," says Field. "These figures will show if something is wrong."

Armson has turned to an external consultant to investigate specific complaints within the Samaritans' general office. He hopes that hiring an outside expert will send a clear message to his employees that he is committed to resolving the problems.

"Without in any way undervaluing our own human resources department, I hope that an external influence will show that we're serious about bringing in that extra degree of objectivity and independence," he says. "I hope that initiatives such as our staff forum and regular internal meetings will cultivate an atmosphere of trust and respect, but when this is not the case, we need to deal with it in an appropriate and speedy manner."

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