Further claims of bullying behaviour at St John Ambulance emerge

Multiple sources have contacted Third Sector about the charity since the issues were first highlighted in December

(Photograph: Jeremy Selwyn/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
(Photograph: Jeremy Selwyn/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Further allegations of bullying at St John Ambulance have emerged after more of its former staff members contacted Third Sector to raise concerns about the organisation’s culture.

In December, Third Sector revealed that SJA had spent £1.1m on severance payments in the past two years and two former senior employees said there was a “pervading culture of bullying” and a widespread use of non-disclosure agreements at the organisation – which the charity rejected.

Since the initial story, more than 10 former staff members and volunteers have contacted Third Sector with further allegations of bullying.

Multiple former SJA employees described the organisation’s culture as “toxic” and reported crying in the office or the toilets, or witnessing colleagues doing the same, as a result of bullying they were subjected to there.

In a statement, the charity said it was “saddening to hear that people had difficult experiences” of the changes the charity had made to ensure its future sustainability.

One source said there was “definitely a culture of bullying” running through the organisation and several sources claimed there was a lack of confidence among the workforce that complaints of bullying would be acted upon.

Another source said “bullying was commonplace and has been normalised”, adding that “people were allowed to get away with bullying regardless of how many times it was complained about by many people”.

Several former employees repeated claims that some who had complained were “paid off” on the condition that they did not speak publicly about their experiences – although the charity has previously denied using non-disclosure agreements.

Last year, SJA began a cost-cutting exercise in response to the coronavirus pandemic and told staff it needed to reduce its headcount by 255.

It received 239 expressions of interest in redundancy from across its 1,600-strong workforce, of which 167 were accepted.

One of the sources that spoke to Third Sector said: “Some senior managers saw the voluntary redundancies as an opportunity to get out because it was becoming untenable.

“It really is a shame because, fundamentally, the charity is very good and what they want to achieve and what it delivers is really good, but I just think there are some key bad apples who are openly allowed to bully others and get away with it.”

Another source said they felt “belittled, undervalued”, that their opinions were “disrespected” and that they were “being managed out”.

The source said: “I was gutted to leave – there was so much more I wanted to accomplish there. I really believed in the charity’s mission and there's so many good individuals, it's hard to understand how it became so toxic.”

A spokesperson for SJA said the charity had invested significantly in initiatives to support its people’s wellbeing over the past two years, including putting in place regular welfare checks, counselling services, and mental health support.

“As a learning organisation we always seek and welcome feedback, and continue to develop further initiatives that build on the transformational foundations that have already been laid under Martin Houghton-Brown’s leadership,” the spokesperson said.

“It is always saddening to hear that people had difficult experiences of the changes we had to make for the sustainability of our charity,” they added.

“However, we are realists and are aware that such sentiments exist within the organisation, and have been working to help ensure we can put things right.

“We understand that the change processes are never easy, but they have been necessary to assure a positive future of St John and its staff and volunteers.

“We recognise from our organisation-wide surveys that the charity must continue to evolve how we enact change, and have put measures in place to address concerns and encourage more people to speak up – particularly those with quieter voices.

“The changes we made, coupled with the financial implications of the pandemic and the resulting need to make people redundant, undoubtedly caused increased anxiety, but we are committed to doing everything we can to mitigate this.”

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