What the Alzheimer's Society got right (and wrong) in its response to disgruntled staff

The charity's leaders have been heavily criticised on Twitter for their running of the organisation. Rebecca Cooney asks the experts how they think charities should respond in such cases

(Photograph: Cernan Elias/Alamy)
(Photograph: Cernan Elias/Alamy)

It has been a difficult couple of weeks for the Alzheimer’s Society.

Last week, a Twitter account popped up, purporting to be run by disgruntled employees of the charity, that strongly criticised the charity’s leadership. Tweets from the account contain specific allegations against named senior leaders at the charity, although it should be noted that none of these have been proven.

Then earlier this week the charity announced that its chief executive of nine years, Jeremy Hughes, would be stepping down within the next year. A spokeswoman for the charity insisted Hughes’s departure had been planned for several months and that it "was a complete coincidence" that the announcement of his departure was made a week after the controversial Twitter account was launched.

The charity found itself under further scrutiny on Wednesday after the results of the latest employee satisfaction survey were made public. They showed that just under a third of employees (31 per cent) had negative or strongly negative views of the charity’s leadership, 40 per cent believed the leadership was out of touch with staff and just 44 per cent believed the charity would act on the results of the survey.

Of course, it’s not unusual for employees to be negative in their feedback about senior leadership teams, but Frances Hurst, co-founder of the charity HR consultancy Birdsong, says the level of negative feeling towards it in this case is higher than the norm. Hurst says she would ordinarily expect to see 15 to 16 per cent express negative views about the leadership.

"There are norms in this area of work: you can expect 5 per cent of your staff to be disgruntled whatever you do," she says. "But when you get above that, it indicates there’s a general feeling that affects the masses."

About 100 people, or 6 per cent of those surveyed, said they had experienced bullying, harassment or intimidation in the past 12 months. Hurst says that, though this is worrying, the figure is sadly not particularly bad for the charity sector.

Since the Twitter account was launched, the charity has tried to reach out to disgruntled staff members. For example, Corinne Mills, the charity’s director of people and organisational development, emailed the Twitter account owners. Her message was subsequently shared on Twitter.

In the email, Mills urged those behind the account to go through the charity’s whistleblowing process, but also warned that the accusations against named specific people could be seen as defamation and might be in breach of the employee confidentiality agreements.

The caption beside the screenshot of the email suggests the tweeters believe the email constitutes further "bullying" and "threats". However, Siobhan Fitzgerald, an employment partner at the law firm TLT, isn’t so sure.

"It was quite a reasonable, balanced response," she says. "It’s difficult because you have a situation in which you’ve got to balance protecting your employees against bullying and unfair treatment, but equally, when allegations are made, before it has been investigated or explored at all, you’ve also got a duty of care towards the people who’ve been accused."

The decision to announce Hughes’s departure during a period of turmoil is also something the experts query. The charity insists Hughes’s departure is nothing to do with the accusations on Twitter, but it was perhaps inevitable that it would be linked in some people’s minds, according to Emily Rogers, chief executive of the PR specialist Uprise.

"The timing is certainly interesting," says Rogers. "If they had been our client, we would have advised them to hold fire until the dust had settled."

She also believes the charity would have been better off had it responded to the allegations publicly when they were first made.

"The trap many fall into when under attack on Twitter is to go quiet, the rationale being that if they don’t say anything, they can’t say anything wrong," she says. But this approach rarely works, she warns.

After concerns were raised in other parts of the sector last year, the charity leaders body Acevo this summer published a report on the impact of bullying in the charity sector and how charities can tackle it.

It would not confirm whether it was in contact with the Alzheimer’s Society about the recent allegations, but Kristiana Wrixon, Acevo’s head of policy, says poor behaviour like bullying can happen in any organisation at any level of seniority. "This is why it is important that civil society organisations put in place policies, procedures and practices to ensure complaints can easily be made, heard and responded to," she says. "Staff surveys are an important part of this because they should enable organisations to capture, monitor and act on staff feedback."
 
The Acevo report, which was produced with the Centre for Mental Health, recommended that organisations nominate a trustee and senior leader responsible for wellbeing, and ensure that they demonstrated they had transparent processes for investigations.

Mills says the Alzheimer’s Society has made several attempts to contact those behind the Twitter account, adding that she has offered them the opportunity to talk to her in confidence or to talk to the charity’s chair, trustees or an independent body such as ACAS. But all these overtures have been rejected, she says.

"The Alzheimer’s Society is committed to a fair, open and respectful working environment," Mills says. "We have a duty of care to all our employees, including those named publicly without any kind of formal process being followed.

"We always thoroughly investigate any reports that members of our team have fallen short of this high bar, going through the appropriate channels.

"We have a robust internal complaints procedure and a whistleblowing policy to ensure all complaints are comprehensively reviewed to support and protect our employees and volunteers."

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