The board and directors of Carillion must be rubbing their hands with glee that Oxfam is now public enemy number one. Founded in 1942, Oxfam is one of the highest-profile high street charities with an income exceeding £400 million. It has undoubtedly made the world a better place but questions are rightly being posed around the morality of its leadership and the quality of its HR input.
The issues alleged in the news are shocking in the extreme. Senior male directors engaging in “Caligula-style” orgies make for lurid tabloid headlines and HR nightmares. The CEO at the time Barbara Stocking has said that Roland van Hauwermeiren (RvH) was allowed to resign without going down any disciplinary route. Did she take this decision alone or with HR input? Was the HR input to go down the disciplinary and police route or was this ignored or not suggested?
There has been growing criticism of the way Oxfam handles serious allegations. If four were sacked and three resigned it sounds as though a more thorough overview was needed; and not just internally but with good external scrutiny. Its current board does not have anyone with a senior HR background either that could have provided this strategic overview.
It’s good to see that an external review of culture will take place. It's all well and good having harassment and whistleblowing policies but you need the culture in place for people to be comfortable raising issues knowing they will be dealt with seriously and fairly. Will the senior team and board act on this review or is it a smokescreen to keep the press at bay?
Penny Morduant, the international development secretary, says Oxfam “did not have the moral leadership to do the right thing”. She is spot on. The board, various sub-committees, the senior team and HR department are all culpable for a series of extremely poor decisions.
RvH and others should have been reported to the police and disciplinary action undertaken and concluded in the period before their notice expired. If the accused failed to engage, then the allegations should have been heard in absentia, so serious were they. Police and safeguarding authorities should have been notified so that future DBS checks would have flagged this and prevented potential repeats. References should have included the fact they were dismissed and the seriousness of the issues to potential employers.
In having failed to do so they leave the charity vulnerable to potential future action. Recent allegations of UK shop staff working without DBS clearances only enhances the view that either the HR policies are not in place or are flouted with impunity.
The deputy CEO has now resigned as she was the head of international development as well as responsible for HR at the time of the alleged issues. Fair play to her for taking this decision. Many in politics and business could learn that with power comes responsibility. Last year Oxfam appointed a people director but this smacks of being too little too late. One was needed in 2011 to advise the board and the CEO of the morally right as well as legally compliant approach. And with 2,500 staff and 30,000 volunteers, didn’t the organisation value its workers enough to have a people person on the senior team?
However, the current CEO and people director were not in post at the time of these issues. Virtually all of the staff and volunteers are exceptional people working in extremely challenging environments for all the right reasons. But a few bad apples will have a massive effect and the reasons organisations have good HR processes is precisely to avoid these types of situations.
The regrettable element is that the spotlight will now focus on other charities operating in this field. Hopefully their practices are transparent and they don’t have skeletons in their cupboards. The Charity Commission needs to show some teeth on this too once its own investigation has been concluded.
Guy Pink is an associate lecturer at Chichester College and former interim chief executive at charity Addaction