Unicef UK chair Douglas Alexander resigns after being accused of bullying behaviour

One of the charity's vice-chairs has also stepped down in the wake of the departure of its executive director, who had made claims of bullying behaviour against Alexander, which he denies

Douglas Alexander (Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Douglas Alexander (Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Douglas Alexander, chair of Unicef UK, and one of its vice-chairs have stepped down in the wake of the resignation of the charity’s executive director, who quit after alleging Alexander had displayed bullying behaviour. 

The resignation of Sacha Deshmukh, executive director of Unicef UK since April, was accepted by the board on Tuesday. 

Alexander said in a statement today that the allegations were a complete surprise to him and were untrue. 

But he said that, despite receiving the support of the board, he felt it would be inappropriate to continue as chair while an inquiry took place. 

Caroline Underwood, one of two vice-chairs at the charity, also announced she had stepped down from the board. 

Alexander said in his statement: "The allegations have come as a complete surprise to me, and are not true.

"Despite receiving the support of the board, I felt it would be inappropriate to continue as chair of the board of trustees while this important inquiry takes place.

"I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the upcoming review process and set out the facts.

"The Unicef UK team is tireless in its devotion to its work. It’s been a privilege to chair the board and I wish it all the success in the future.”

Underwood, who has been on the Unicef UK board since 2016, is chief executive of the agency the Philanthropy Company and a former director of philanthropy and partnerships at Save the Children UK. 

It is understood she stepped down without knowing Alexander was going to resign. 

Underwood said in a lengthy statement on LinkedIn that she was very sad to be stepping down from the board, and that the incident was a distraction from Unicef's vital work. 

“For the record there is no one at or associated with Unicef UK that I have met who has not done their best to work towards a common aim – being there for children around the world,” she said. 

“Douglas Alexander has been accused of bullying this week after an illustrious career in public life. In the time I have served with Douglas at Unicef UK I have personally experienced nothing but a dedicated commitment to helping Unicef UK move forward and a fierce ambition for the board and charity to be the best it can be.

“Yes, he is ambitious for the charity, yes because of that he is sometimes demanding as you might expect from someone with determination and vision, but he has shown outstanding leadership of an extraordinary board.”

Underwood said on a personal note that she had only seen Alexander to be considered, compassionate and polite. 

While she had not been in private meetings between him and Deshmukh, Underwood said that she had not experienced any tensions between them, which only came to light to her on Monday.

She also said Deshmukh was an outstanding individual. 

“Something has gone horribly wrong. It makes me so sad that he is leaving; the stated reason for leaving makes me even sadder. The bewilderment of the staff makes me sad; the need to start again with appointing leadership in an already challenging market makes me even sadder," she said. 

“The shock of the trustees to Sacha’s departure makes me sad; the personal anguish and pain and the reputational damage of the individuals involved makes me sadder.”

Deshmukh was among a group of about 10 staff members who had complained about bullying behaviour by Alexander. 

Allegations against Alexander, an international development secretary in Gordon Brown's Labour government, include that he repeatedly displayed aggressive language and behaviour, such as shouting at staff. 

Sources claimed the charity had to put a limit on the number of staff who had contact with Alexander to avoid more complaints being raised. 

It is understood that Deshmukh considered the lack of action by the board on any of the issues, including his own complaint, made his position untenable. 

The charity said in response that it was surprised by the allegations because it had never received any formal complaints in this area. 

Nonetheless, it said it took the allegations seriously and had therefore launched a formal review led by an external adviser with the support of two trustees. 

Unicef UK has been contacted for comment. 

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