Craig Dearden-Phillips: The sector has massive HR problems and too many toxic staff

We must not let employees with petty grievances ruin our brand, writes our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

One of the litany of reasons I pulled back from the third sector was its biggest dirty secret - the massive amount of time and money spent on dealing with grievances and disciplinaries.

As both a chief executive and a trustee, I spent a shocking amount of time dealing with often petty disputes that had somehow escalated into mini-court cases involving everyone from the chairman down.

Ring any bells? I am guessing so. Few organisations have not tasted the fear of a Mr Angry threatening an employment tribunal or Ms Vexatious tying up hours of management time in a drawn-out grievance process involving no end of accumulated bile.

So what do we do about this? First, we should admit we have an issue. Massive HR problems are the dirty secret of a sector that in the public imagination is staffed entirely by self-sacrificing worker bees. In reality, for every 10 bees there is one toxic person who, consciously or not, uses the charity as a canvas for personal psychodramas. Our sector appears to have more than its fair share of these people, as the statistics on employment tribunals confirm.

Second, we need to stop owning the personal problems that most toxics bring into work. As the "nice" sector, we tend to fall into a parental role with people who, for their own reasons, behave like children. Like a parent, we take the crap, give endless second chances and fund an often fruitless search for external solutions. Instead, we ought to treat bad behaviour as a choice, insist people take responsibility for their own conduct and respond to them accordingly.

Therefore the third thing we must do is be brave and follow through - with firm action if necessary. Like children, some grown people need to have boundaries laid down firmly. Managers in our sector often grasp what needs to be done but pull back, cowed by the army of HR people who make a living off all this chaos.

Of course, our sector is not unique. The public sector also has a very unassertive approach towards people who take the mick. The private sector, where the boss's own money is often on the line, is often better. Someone picking your own pocket certainly focuses the mind.

The good news is that the future is likely to be better than the past. The coalition government has made it harder for toxic employees to lodge vexatious claims and now gives employers the opportunity to have proper conversations when an appointment isn't working out. We also have two years before full employment rights kick in. This is progress, but only if third sector managers use this to good effect.

If we let this go on, the great HR swindle will, like all dirty secrets, seep out and pollute our brand and the trust people have in charities will dissipate. As always, the choices are in our own hands.

Contact Craig, who writes in a personal capacity, at

Craig Dearden-Phillips, managing director of Stepping Out

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