Turmoil at Terrence Higgins

The employment tribunal ruling that the HIV/Aids charity unfairly dismissed its former chief executive also brought to light concerns about its culture and governance practices. Stephen Cook reviews the employment case and talks to Ian Green, its new chief executive, about how he will move the charity forward

Ian Green hopes to regain public confidence in the Terrence Higgins Trust
Ian Green hopes to regain public confidence in the Terrence Higgins Trust

Ever since HIV/Aids began to spread in the early 1980s, the Terrence Higgins Trust - named after the first UK victim - has been the household-name charity in the fight against the epidemic. Led for more than 20 years by Sir Nick Partridge, it grew steadily in size, influence and reputation.

Since Partridge (below) left two and a half years ago, however, the trust has been through troubled times that culminated in July with an employment tribunal ruling that it had unfairly dismissed Partridge's successor, Rosemary Gillespie. The tribunal was highly critical of the evidence of the charity's chair, Robert Glick, who has resigned but will remain in post until November. The charity is now faced with a significant legal bill, the task of restoring staff morale, regaining lost trust among stakeholders and other HIV/Aids charities, and examining why its board and management failed to prevent the recent upheavals or manage them effectively.

The Charity Commission has opened a case and asked the trust for more information "to determine what regulatory action, if any, may be necessary". The trust itself has commissioned an external review of its governance and its new chief executive, Ian Green, has restructured the senior management and agreed a new strategic plan. "We are the largest HIV/Aids charity," he says. "We need to show leadership, but in a humble, participatory way."

Partridge's departure in November 2013 was marked by articles in the media dwelling on the successes of his long service as chief executive, not least the merger with seven other charities to form a national organisation in 1998 and the takeover of more than 30 others since then.

Stephen Cook: Terrence Higgins Trust case highlights the need for alert governance

But it has now emerged that all was not well before his departure and the charity had commissioned what it called the "Listening Exercise" from Simon Taylor, a consultant and former chair of the charity. He conducted 36 interviews and focus groups with stakeholders, and his report was presented to the board in the month of Partridge's departure.

The conclusions of the exercise were summarised in the witness statement to the employment tribunal by Gillespie, a former nurse and university lecturer who had been chief executive of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation for three years and interim chief executive of Avert, an international Aids charity, for six months. Gillespie was not willing to be interviewed by Third Sector because the remedies hearing to determine any compensation she will receive is yet to take place.

But her statement - not disputed by the charity - said Taylor's report included the statements that "almost all interviewees found THT frustrating to work with" and "there was widespread and strong criticism of much of the culture and ways of working, both externally with outside organisations and internally with staff and volunteers.

"There was seen to be a lack of transparency and openness, and an arrogance, lack of respect and insularity amongst some of the senior executives vis-a-vis other organisations and also staff and volunteers."

Comments on the THT by stakeholders in the report, according to Gillespie's statement, included "arrogant and aloof", "never gives credit to anyone else", "capricious senior management style", "disrespectful", "stuck with their own world view" and "THT don't do partnership".

'Campaign of bullying'

Gillespie's statement said she had been hired to make changes and fix the serious problems at the charity, but "starting on the second day I became the subject of a nasty, vindictive and sustained campaign of bullying, harassment and undermining of my leadership, led by two senior managers who were resistant to scrutiny and the changes the trustees had asked me to make".

Her statement said the board made no criticism of her performance during the conflicts that followed and, in April 2015 - less than three months before her dismissal - Glick told her by email that it was "a tremendous pleasure" to work with her: "I think you and I are on our way to developing an outstanding partnership and I couldn't be more excited about working with you at the helm as we take the leap into the next stage."

The board had backed a decision in January that year to suspend her two main critics, whose identity the tribunal said should not be revealed. After an inquiry by an HR consultant, they left under a settlement agreement. But on 6 July last year, 30 minutes after she had sent an email to staff about the departure of the two, she was called in and dismissed by Paul Jenkins, the vice-chair, who has since resigned.

The tribunal considering her subsequent claim for unfair dismissal had to decide whether she had been dismissed for poor performance, as Glick said in his evidence, or for making so-called protected disclosures - drawing matters of public interest to an employer's attention, such as failure to comply with legal obligations or dangers to health and safety.

Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, intended to protect whistleblowers, dismissing someone for making protected disclosures is automatically deemed unfair. The main protected disclosures Gillespie said she made were telling the trustees that she considered the expense of the lengthy inquiry into the behaviour of the two managers was unjustified, that the proposal to give them 15 months' salary on their departure was excessive and that an incident when Jenkins got drunk and made sexual advances to the THT's medical director was a safeguarding issue for vulnerable staff and beneficiaries.

The tribunal rejected numerous aspects of Glick's evidence, including his contention that his positive message to Gillespie in April 2015 was just an effort to boost her confidence. This was "an inaccurate, after-the-event rationalisation", the decision said. Glick's evidence that other trustees had made unsolicited criticisms to him of her performance was also deemed "unsatisfactory".

It concluded that her disclosures, including those concerning inappropriate use of the charity's funds for the inquiry and pay-offs, had the potential to cause embarrassment to Glick and the charity. As a matter of probability, it said, the reason for his pressing for her dismissal was that she had made the protected disclosures.

On the day the tribunal decision was sent to the parties, Professor Robert Miller, a specialist in infectious and respiratory diseases at University College London Hospitals, resigned as a trustee of THT "for personal reasons". He declined to say more to Third Sector. Another trustee, Ben Bradshaw MP, who supported the cause of whistleblowers when he was a junior health minister in 2009, also declined to comment.

Lessons to learn

When Glick resigned a week after the tribunal decision, Ian Green, who took over as chief executive in February this year, sent an email to the charity's 10,400 members saying that the charity disagreed with the tribunal's decision but accepted there were lessons to learn and was setting up a governance review. A new chair and up to four new trustees are now being sought.

Green added that Glick, who is also a trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum and Sadler's Wells Theatre, had provided "inspired leadership" and the charity was "in a much stronger position than when he commenced as chair" in November 2014.

This message dismayed some recipients, including Steve Johnson, who works in the financial sector and has supported the charity for years. He told Third Sector that Green's "glowing eulogy" for Glick (left) was "quite ridiculous and wholly inappropriate", given the tribunal's criticisms of him: "The Terrence Higgins Trust is in a very sorry state and arguably in its darkest hour."

Green, who was headhunted from the World Alliance of YMCAs, said in an interview with Third Sector that the Listening Exercise had shown the perception of the THT to be "pretty poor", but he and senior colleagues had worked hard recently on "engaging appropriately" with partners. He was satisfied that key issues had been identified and action taken.

"I don't believe we are arrogant, although it might have been the case four years ago," he said. "Perhaps in the past we were seen as rather predatory, but that's not the case now and, no, we don't consider ourselves to be top dog. There have been no mergers or acquisitions in recent years and we use some of our resources to support local charities.

"We are the largest HIV/Aids charity, and with that comes criticism, fair or unfair. We need to show leadership, but in a humble, participatory way, and are keen to reset our relationship with the wider sector. It would be disingenuous to say recent events have had no impact, but if there is any lack of confidence I hope to regain it.

"I don't want to prejudice what the external report on governance will say, but there are some issues in relation to the making and recording of decisions and making sure there are clear terms of reference when bodies meet. It should report in a couple of months."

Support of the board

Given what happened to his predecessor as chief executive, did Green trust his board? "Yes. I have received a huge amount of support from them," Green said. "I am accountable to them as my employer and I advise them, and my advice has been well received. I'm impressed by the quality of the trustees. If there are concerns about my performance, I'm confident they will tell me."

What lessons are there in this for other charities? "When there are difficulties, the key issue is making sure that you respond appropriately," he said. "I hope that down the line we can have discussions with others in the sector about some of our challenges, lessons and solutions."

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