The chief executive of St John Ambulance has apologised to current and former staff and volunteers who have experienced a culture of bullying at the charity and vowed to do better.
Martin Houghton-Brown said he understood there were other experiences of bullying within the organisation that were yet to come to light and acknowledged that its welfare and whistleblowing processes had not so far been effective.
In December, Third Sector ran a story about a “culture of bullying” and the use of non-disclosure agreements at the charity, following allegations from two former employees. This was followed by two further stories, looking at bullying among staff and volunteers.
In an interview with Third Sector, Houghton-Brown said he had felt “huge sadness and frustration” on reading the accounts of bullying.
But he said he believed the accounts, and admitted there were “other people in St John with similar experiences”.
He said: “Let’s be clear, these won’t be the only people with that experience, we know that what you’re hearing is what we’re hearing.”
He went on to say: “I am sorry that people have left our organisation and feel that they have left with injustice. I don’t want that to be the case – I want people to leave with their head held high and to feel that they can return.”
A survey in June last year found that a quarter of staff members were not confident that action would be taken if they spoke up about workplace issues – and following further surveys, 15 per cent of employees said this was because they had spoken out before and nothing had been done.
The charity had 1,500 employees at the end of 2019, according to the most recent accounts on the Charity Commission website, and Houghton-Brown acknowledged that 15 per cent of 1,500 people is “a lot”.
He pledged that the charity would take action in response to the allegations highlighted by Third Sector and said he had spoken to the charity’s board “at great length” about the articles.
“We agreed last week that we would bring all of our wellbeing and whistleblowing initiatives together in a single programme with leadership under three trustees.”
Houghton-Brown said the trustees were “really actively considering whether we need to put more resource towards this”, although he admitted: “I haven’t got a cheque in my hand right now.”
He acknowledged that the charity might need external expert support to embed the initiatives.
Many of the former employees who spoke to Third Sector alleged the use of non-disclosure agreements, to prevent those who had been bullied out of the organisation from discussing their experiences, was “widespread”.
Houghton-Brown defended the practice of using “settlement agreements”, which he said “are the norm in every organisation”, and added that the charity funded independent legal advice for staff.
“If anyone who has left the organisation doesn’t feel they were heard, I would welcome them coming to talk to us,” he said.
“I would encourage people to still come and speak through the Speak Up Guardian.
“Only through listening can we work out what’s gone wrong for them, and if it’s gone wrong for them, it’s gone wrong for others. I think the only response is: we’ve got to listen, we’ve got to learn and we’ve got to follow up.”
A number of volunteers alleged their medical history had been “weaponised” against them after they made complaints about bullying or the behaviour of senior volunteers.
Houghton-Brown said he was “really disappointed” by those reports, adding: “There is never, never a time where that’s appropriate and, where confidential information has been accessed, that’s gross misconduct that requires someone to be dismissed.”
As part of his reforms to the organisation, Houghton-Brown said he had focused on empowering and shining a spotlight on the charity’s 24,000 volunteers.
When asked how he planned to do this without perpetuating what several volunteers have described as a “cult-like” atmosphere, in which senior volunteers were viewed as infallible, he acknowledged it would be a challenge, given the importance of rank within the organisation.
“I understand the emphasis on rank and uniform – when you are in an emergency you need to know who’s in charge and do exactly what they say, otherwise lives are lost – but I don’t support it when it produces people using rank and uniform to lord it over other people,” he said,
Houghton-Brown said that while he believed inclusion was important to many volunteers, particularly the under-25s, the situation varied between geographical areas, and “we haven’t got it yet”.
He said he had participated in anonymous Q&As and encouraged other leaders to do the same, but the charity needed to do more work on unconscious bias training and compassionate leadership.
Even so, he said he realised that change needed to happen more quickly than it previously had, and insisted he was committed to listening to what current and former staff and volunteers had to say.