Where next in the sector’s fight against bullying and discrimination? Part two

In the wake of the leaked report into discriminatory bullying at the NCVO and revelations of similar behaviour elsewhere across the sector, Rebecca Cooney speaks to organisers and contributors involved in the #NotJustNCVO campaign to ask what cultural changes need to be made

(Photograph: Tim Gouw/Pexels)
(Photograph: Tim Gouw/Pexels)

Just over a month ago, Third Sector published extracts from a now-infamous report that found “bullying and harassment” on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and disability happened “with impunity” at all levels of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

Alongside expressions of outrage and disappointment in the NCVO, many charity Twitter users began to share their own stories of racism, ableism, homophobia, sexism and bullying in the sector.

A group of campaigners began to curate the outpouring of stories under the hashtag #NotJustNCVO, providing a vivid and sometimes harrowing picture of discriminatory bullying that, it seems, is rife among organisations that are supposed to be engaged in making the world a better place.

So, what needs to happen as the sector faces fresh scrutiny over bullying?

Sophia Moreau and the other organisers behind #NotJustNCVO are wrestling with this question. They have set up a Twitter account, @CharityDiscrim, and are developing a strategy for the campaign.

It’s early days and nothing has been decided yet, Moreau says, so at this point her thoughts and those of others involved with the hashtag are just that – their own thoughts.

It is important to be clear about what the problem is, Moreau says: yes, clearly bullying is part of the issue and no one should be made to feel bullied. But the bigger issue is “the fact that people are able to exercise these abuses of power”.

Moreau says, change needs to start “structurally and culturally”. In the second part of this two-hander analysis, Third Sector asks experts and sector organisers for their thoughts on the cultural challenges, and how they can be addressed. Read part one here.

Not listening

The tribunal system, explored in the first part of this series, is one way in which people who have experienced discriminatory behaviour can seek something that looks like justice – or, at the very least, external accountability.

Others have taken a different route, approaching the media to blow the whistle on their employers. Allegations of bullying and discrimination at the Alzheimer’s Society, St John Ambulance, Versus Arthritis, Unicef UK, Barnardo’s and the NCVO itself were all brought to light in the press.

Lizzie Walmsley, who has tweeted under #NotJustNCVO about her own experiences of taking a bullying case to tribunal, argues this is symptomatic of organisations where employees feel they have nowhere else to go.

“It’s clear HR are not listening, their leadership teams are not listing, the boards aren’t listening, the Charity Commission’s not listening. It takes a long time and a lot of painful effort to go through a tribunal – you’re left with the only avenue possible, which is public shame, and that can’t be right,” she says.

The disability campaigner and #NotJustNCVO organiser Sophia Kleanthous agrees. She says she has experienced a similar internal response when complaining about witnessing racism while working in the voluntary sector.

She was explicitly told that since the person she was complaining about was “known and respected” across the sector, she would have difficulty finding work again if she raised a complaint against them.

Kleanthous says there is often a sense that those who complain are seen as failing to “know their place”, and believes the problem is particularly pernicious for people of colour.

“The term ‘team player’ is constantly used in the sector, and you’re not a team player if you raise a complaint,” she says.

Moreau says the kinds of threats Kleanthous experienced are common.

“People talk about ‘cancel culture’, but in the voluntary sector, at least, the real cancel culture is what happens to whistleblowers,” says Moreau.

“At the moment, there are very high rates of people leaving an organisation after raising a grievance which is brushed off, or they are made to feel like outsiders.”

Often internal handling of a complaint, combined with the use of tools such as non-disclosure agreements, ensures that the careers of those who speak out suffer more than those who are accused, she says.

But she adds there is a lot employers can do to make whistleblowing safe, simply in terms of how they treat and view the people involved.

“We need to get away from the idea that someone who was accused of an act cannot be your friend, someone you respect and admire, cannot be someone who’s got a reputation for doing great speeches about equality or anti-bullying,” says Moreau.

“We also need to get away from the idea that speaking about abuse and harassment is more harmful than committing those acts, because it delays when people feel able to come forward if they feel they’re daming themselves by doing so.”

Good or poor responses to accusations will be noticed by others who have been victimised and will determine whether they come forward as well, she says.

In addition, Moreau says organisations that do want to see change need to look again at their procedures.

“The norm seems to be policies that assume you can always go to someone more senior, and eventually the chief executive.”

But this ignores the fact that bullying tends to happen when someone has power over someone else, and that the bully in question may be the victim’s line manager, a director or the chief executive.

Moreau says junior staff members are often seen as more expendable to the organisation than the senior staff members they have complained about.

“It shouldn’t be about expendability, it should be about the harm done,” she says.

“So we need procedures that say, regardless of seniority, no one should be exempt, and that should be embedded into whoever is hearing the complaint.”

There also need to be consequences when a complaint is upheld – too often, Moreau says, even formal apologies will use minimising language.

“If there has been an investigation and it has concluded there was wrongdoing, you cannot have an apology that still tries to suggest it was all in that person’s imagination,” she says.

“If the apology doesn't even give the problems their names, that will lead to lost faith, lost confidence and further trauma.”

She says organisations need to think about restorative justice, which looks to resolve the issue rather than simply be punitive.

“The victim will know if they feel they can still work with that person,” she says.

“If not, can they be separated in a way that won’t damage the victim’s career?”

She says organisations also need to think about what disciplinary action can be taken to demonstrate that they understand the harm done and are willing to prevent it from happening again.

“Often, the victim just wants it to stop happening and they don’t want it to happen to anyone else.”

Allyship

Kleanthous argues that changes to recruitment to support more people of colour and disabled people into the sector, along with the diversification of trustee boards, are crucial to ensuring that people from minoritised groups feel able to come forward, and that their complaints are taken seriously.

She also believes there is an important role for allies to play in supporting colleagues experiencing discrimination on the basis of race, disability, gender or sexual orientation.

Kleanthous recalls once seeing a colleague frequently leave a meeting, and realising that no one else had noticed the person was clearly going to the toilets to cry.

“The bullying is so covered, I don’t think people realise how much it is happening – but particularly with the racism, people should really have realised how much is going on now,” she says.

“As white people in the sector, we have a big role to stand up for people who are being discriminated against.

“It shouldn’t have to be on black or disabled people to say ‘This isn’t OK’, it should be others who are there and can act as a support mechanism, and in a privileged position, and use their power.”

Overwork

Another cultural issue that needs to be tackled is the expectation that staff, driven by passion for the cause and an understanding of their organisation’s stretched resources, will work above and beyond their contracted hours and take on more work than is reasonable for one person to complete.

The past year has only exacerbated this situation, and Kleanthous says this creates particular challenges for people with disabilities.

“The charity sector is, in many ways, very cutthroat and competitive – there’s an idea that if you can’t hack it, if you can’t do your job (which might really be the job of three people), don’t work there,” she says.

“So if you have a health condition where you need to take time off for appointments or flare-ups, that becomes a problem.

“Ableism comes from this idea that you have to work until you’re basically dying, but a lot of people with health conditions can't work flat out – and if we do, we can have a breakdown.”

Walmsley agrees. And, she says, it’s something that leaders need to guard against at every step.

She points to the 2019 report released by charity leaders body Acevo, Leading with Values, which warned of the dangers of “cultural slippage” – low-level, unchallenged breaches of values, including overworking staff and putting unreasonable expectations on people with childcare responsibilities or disabilities.

This, the report argued, leads to larger breaches of values and boundaries, and a slippery downward slope.

“Even leaders who might not know bullying is going on in an organisation may be contributing to that slippage, and that can’t be unconnected to where this bullying comes from,” she says.

The role of leadership

Ultimately, Walmsley says, change does need to come down from the leadership level, and one response to the outpouring of #NotJustNCVO stories needs to be self-reflection, from both organisations and individuals.

“That fear that you’ll be labelled a troublemaker is so strong, so to have so many people share their stories and say ‘and I’m still in the sector’ is powerful – because often when you hear about it, it’s from people who have left the sector,” she says.

In addition, she says, leaders acknowledging they may have got something wrong in the past creates a space for reconciliation.

“I’d love to see more people in positions of power, particularly boards, come out and say transparently, ‘Here’s what we got wrong, here’s what we’re going to do’ – not just because they got caught, but because they were learning actively.”

Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at Acevo, agrees.

“Anyone who has ever had line management responsibilities for another person should reflect on whether their approach for supporting and managing the team member at any time was unhelpful or harmful, or what they could learn from it,” she says.

While clearly not everyone who looks back over their career will suddenly realise they were a bully or discriminated against someone, it is a useful exercise in terms of growing as an individual, manager and leader.

“Look back and ask: is there anything I wouldn’t do now, and can I learn from that? Are there any personal or professional triggers that might have contributed to that behaviour, and how might I be aware of them if they arise again, so I know what I would do? Who would I talk to and how would I work my way through it?” Wrixon advises.

“Those are the kind of questions that anyone with any level of responsibility needs to be asking themselves.”

At chief executive and board level, she says, the introspection needs to go deeper, and needs to include making sure lines of communication are always open, that everybody knows about whistleblowing and modelling the kind of behaviour and culture you want to see in the organisation.

These conversations also need to happen at board level.

“The issue of bullying is really complex,” Wrixon says.

“There’s never any excuse for it, it’s never acceptable, but trying to untangle some of the cultural reasons why it persists, and why it sits in our sector and how we talk about it, is really important.”

Acevo began to do this work with the In Plain Sight report, produced in 2019 with the Centre for Mental Health.

The report recommended the creation of a programme that looks at culture change within the sector, which “would very much involve action and discussion for leadership”, Wrixon says.

“The problem is that this kind of ambition requires a level of funding that doesn’t seem to be available, so Acevo hasn’t been able to get started on that in a way that we would have liked to in an ideal world.”

But she says, the body developed member meetings and conference sessions to discuss the report and its recommendations, and in the wake of the #NotJustNCVO campaign is putting together a further series of sessions on culture and bullying to run over the summer.

Like Moreau, Kleanthous and Walmsley, Wrixon believes #NotJustNCVO is a starting point.

“This is a really important conversation and we can’t lose momentum on it, we need to keep working together,” she says.

One of the overriding themes linking the major charity scandals of the past five years, including Kids Company, the fundraising crisis of 2015, the safeguarding scandal and even the Presidents Club, has been the notion that it is not enough for an organisation to do good, it must be doing good well.

It is a lesson the sector seems to be learning over and over again, in different ways and different areas of its work.

The deluge of stories that have come out in the press and which continue to be shared on social media presents the sector with a chance to learn this lesson in relation to its employees.

“We have a choice,” Walmsley says. “There’s a world in which the bullied become the bullies – or we can make this a charity sector that is ready for more change. We start by living the change now.”

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