St John Ambulance rejects claims it has a 'pervading culture of bullying'

Two former senior employees have told Third Sector that the use of non-disclosure agreements for departing staff was widespread; the charity rejects this claim

St John Ambulance has strongly rejected claims from two former senior employees that there is a “pervading culture of bullying” and a widespread use of non-disclosure agreements at the organisation. 

The claims come as the first aid charity’s annual accounts for 2019 reveal it had spent £1.1m on severance payments in the past two years – and that the charity had a pre-pandemic £7.1m deficit in the year to 31 December 2019. 

The two former employees also claimed that the use of non-disclosure agreements for departing staff members was "widespread" at the charity in 2018 and 2019, something the charity denies.

The accounts, published this week, showed the charity had spent £700,000 on severance payments, which, when added to the £400,000 spent on payoffs the year before, means the organisation had spent £1.1m in the past two years. 

In a statement, the charity said this was as a result of a restructure in 2019, which meant that a number of longstanding roles were no longer required.

But two former senior employees of the charity, who spoke to Third Sector on condition of anonymity, claimed there was a pervading “culture of bullying” at the organisation over the past few years, forcing many senior managers to leave.

The charity said 15 members of senior management left the organisation in 2018 and 2019. 

The former employees claimed staff who offered an independent opinion on the leadership’s decisions were “ignored”, “belittled” and “managed out” of the organisation.

Many of those who left were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, they said. 

They claimed this culture had coincided with the arrival of Martin Houghton-Brown, who became chief executive of the charity at the beginning of 2018

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the charity said it sought to foster a culture of transparency, inclusivity and compassion, where all points of view were welcomed, and that Houghton-Brown had introduced measures to support this.

“We strongly reject allegations that there is a culture of bullying at St John and would clarify that none of those in receipt of settlements made any such allegations,” she said.

She said Houghton-Brown had never been accused of bullying and that the charity has a robust whistleblowing policy.

“The strategy for St John approved in 2019 included a restructure of senior roles to better fit our future ways of working – which meant a number of longstanding roles were no longer required,” she said.

“The settlement figures recorded here include the annual salary of the individual, plus a consideration for how long they had served in post, in line with our redundancy policy.”

She said it was not true that the use of NDAs was widespread. 

But she added: “In some cases, we have used settlement agreements which seek to reach a mutually acceptable and legally binding agreement for people leaving the organisation, while ensuring that they receive independent legal advice. 

“In no way do they interfere with the open and transparent operation of our robust whistleblowing policy, nor do they preclude engagement with concerns raised by employees either before, during or after departure. They are also optional, in that no employee is compelled to sign one.”

The charity has been vocal about the effect that the coronavirus crisis has had on its income

But the latest accounts reveal the charity’s deficit increased by a third from £5.6m in 2018 to £7.5m in 2019, before Covid-19 arrived in the UK.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the charity said: “The 2019 deficit was in part due to the disappointing performance of some of our public sector contracts, the rising costs of property maintenance and expenditure on a planned website upgrade.”

“These are areas that have been addressed in 2020 as part of our response to the challenging financial context created by the pandemic.”

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