Versus Arthritis promises action after inquiry shows lack of staff confidence in tackling racism and bullying

The charity asked the consultancy Tell Jane to examine 14 allegations of racism and bullying

Versus Arthritis has pledged it will work to become a “truly inclusive and anti-racist” organisation after an independent investigation into 14 allegations of racism and bullying concluded that employees might not have the confidence to raise such issues.

The independent investigation by the HR consultancy Tell Jane investigated 10 allegations of bullying and four of racism at the charity, partially upholding one case but finding that some could not be fully investigated due to staff reluctance to take part. 

One bullying allegation was partially upheld and will be progressed in line with internal procedures including a disciplinary investigation, a Versus Arthritis spokesperson told Third Sector

In two cases, Tell Jane concluded there were no substantive allegations to investigate and in seven cases the allegations of bullying were not upheld. 

One allegation of racism was fully investigated. Two could not be investigated because of staff reluctance to take part and the fourth could not be completed due to a key witness being unavailable, according to the consultancy. 

Tell Jane reported that it was difficult to draw a conclusion on the racism allegations and observed that a lack of trust in the charity’s processes by staff could be the basis for this.

Versus Arthritis filed a serious incident report to the Charity Commission in October following multiple employee accounts of systemic racism, racially motivated microaggressions and bullying. 

A former trustee of the charity, Ian Walters, also resigned from the board due to its “failure and unwillingness to exercise its responsibilities and fully comply with the regulator’s requirements for reporting serious incidents.” 

The charity appointed Tell Jane in October to investigate the allegations and review the charity’s HR policies and processes, including its case management of bullying and racism. 

After screenshots of an internal message board were shared on social media that alleged elements of the investigation were intimidating and victim-blaming, Versus Arthritis issued an apology and amended the process to ensure staff were initially contacted by the charity’s director of people and organisational development. 

Additional findings from Tell Jane’s investigation included that some people in the charity did not have the confidence to raise issues of racism or bullying, or confidence in them being addressed.

The consultancy also found evidence of a lack of trust in the charity’s HR team and said line managers needed additional training to support colleagues who raised issues of racism and bullying. 

Versus Arthritis said it could not comment on individual cases for privacy reasons, but a spokesperson told Third Sector the charity was providing direct and ongoing help to anyone involved in the cases, including mediation and coaching, as well as support from its employee assistance programme.

Acting chief executive Ellen Miller told Third Sector the lack of confidence among some members of staff to voice concerns of racism was “profoundly unacceptable” and said the charity was committed to creating a zero-tolerance approach to racism and bullying at all levels of the organisation. 

Versus Arthritis was launching an action plan to create a more diverse and inclusive culture, Miller said, including the implementation of a development plan for its HR department and the introduction of a new anti-bullying policy. 

A programme of external anti-racism training is being rolled out across the organisation, with an initial round of training delivered to the charity’s trustees and executive team in November. 

Versus Arthritis is planning to implement a phased training plan across the organisation, beginning with leaders and line managers.

The charity has also commissioned a leadership and governance review into the handling of the racism and bullying situation. 

“It has been a challenging period for us all at the charity and we have to do more to become truly inclusive and anti-racist. This work will be difficult, and we will not always get it right, but I’m committed to working together for lasting change,” Miller said. 

“I respect and appreciate the courage of our colleagues in sharing their experiences. We will become  a stronger organisation as a result, and better able to serve the needs of all people with arthritis.” 

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