Exclusive: Versus Arthritis files serious incident report to Charity Commission over systemic racism and bullying

Deputy chief executive Ellen Miller said the charity was committed to ‘stamping out systemic racism’ and would be 'open and transparent' in its process

Versus Arthritis has filed a serious incident report with the Charity Commission following multiple employee accounts of systemic racism, racially motivated microaggressions and bullying, Third Sector can reveal.

The report was filed with the Charity Commission earlier this week, according to an email seen by Third Sector

Trustees took the decision following consideration of accounts of systemic racism and racially motivated microaggressions that were shared by employees during an open company meeting in July, the email said, as well as subsequent reports of racism and bullying at the charity. 

According to the email, a trustee resigned from the board over a “difference of opinion” about the organisation’s handling of the issue.  

Employee experiences shared during the open meeting in July, and seen by Third Sector, included accounts of racism, bullying and microaggressions at the charity. 

One employee’s account described an exchange in which a colleague “discussed the reintroduction of slavery to the UK, arguing that it would improve the economy”, and refused to stop after they expressed their discomfort with the topic.

In another testimony, an employee described being told that they should make themself “more palatable to white people”, and “needed to be mentored on how to communicate with white individuals”. 

Others included a black member of staff being repeatedly referred to by the name of another black person by a member of senior management, in front of other senior managers who did not call them out for it; and employees experiencing racist stereotyping from colleagues who also deal with charity service users. 

Multiple accounts criticised the HR department’s approach to handling issues of racist bullying, as well as the behaviour of senior managers and the charity’s leadership team. 

Speaking to Third Sector, Ellen Miller, deputy chief executive of Versus Arthritis, acknowledged that allegations of racism and bullying “may not have been properly addressed in the past”, which she described as “unacceptable”.

She did not comment on the reasons behind the trustee’s resignation, but said: “We are sad that he did not feel comfortable with the approach being taken by the board, but respect his decision.” 

Miller said the charity was committed to “stamping out systemic racism”. 

“We are trying to be open and transparent in our response. As part of this, trustees have made a serious incident report to the Charity Commission, and we have informed them of the steps we are taking to become an anti-racist organisation,” she said. 

“The Charity Commission has taken a clear stance on the need for early disclosures and for charities to be open and ready to tackle systemic racism and bullying. That is the values set we are trying to demonstrate.”

Steps taken by Versus Arthritis have included the appointment of an independent advisor, Tell Jane, to investigate the allegations of bullying and racism, and to review the charity’s case management of bullying and racism, Miller said. 

She added the organisation was reviewing its dignity at work and grievance policies to make sure it is “as inclusive as possible”, had set up a confidential helpline where employees could access support, and had undergone initial training in inclusive leadership and anti-racism for management and senior leadership. 

The charity has also recruited a head of equality, diversity and inclusion who will “spearhead taking this forward and making sure it is embedded in the way [Versus Arthritis] operates,” Miller said. 

When asked why trustees had waited until October to file a serious incident report, given that it is in part based on accounts shared in the July meeting, Miller said: “We took a review of the allegations and decided the appropriate response was to bring in an independent advisor to review the allegations. 

“Between July and now we have defined the scope of the process, gone through a procurement process, launched, and now have the live investigations.” 

She described the July meeting as “shocking and sad” for the organisation. 

Asked whether she accepted that the charity could be facing a crisis of trust in its leadership, given employee accounts that involved senior managers and leadership, Miller said it would not be appropriate to comment on individual cases, but added: “It is really important that we are open and honest. 

“We have approached this from a place of trying to be really transparent, tell people what has happened, and what we are going to do – and try to approach it with an attitude of humility and listening,” she said

“We want to become anti-racist and we want our people to know that.” 

A spokesperson for the Charity Commission confirmed the regulator had received a serious incident report from Versus Arthritis. 

The spokesperson told Third Sector: “We can confirm that the charity has submitted a serious incident report to us in relation to this matter. We are assessing information and cannot comment further at this time.”

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