One in five staff at Save the Children UK have faced harassment or discrimination

The charity pledges to take action following a review into its workplace culture

Almost one in five staff at Save the Children UK have experienced harassment or discrimination at the organisation, according to an independent review into workplace culture at the charity.

Twenty-eight per cent of the 700 current members of staff who responded to the review said they had experienced either discrimination or harassment in the past three years, accounting for 19% of the charity's total 1,068 staff (not including volunteers). Despite this, 91% of respondents said they took pride in their work for Save the Children and 89% said their colleagues were supportive.

Complaints included people's opinions being ignored, feeling humiliated and ridiculed, and "a small number of incidents of gender harassment and unwanted sexual attention". Some such incidents highlighted in the review covered unwanted sexual attention, comments on dress, “suggestive gestures, staring or touching”, and comments about women being less reliable because of childcare duties or pregnancy.

Suzanne Shale, an ethics expert who led the review, called the experiences “of interpersonal mistreatment” at work “disturbing”.

“They can cause particularly high levels of distress when people are committed both personally and professionally to protecting others who are vulnerable,” she said.

These findings have come out of a review into workplace culture at the charity commissioned back in February after it came under fire for its handling of sexual misconduct complaints in the past. Sexual harassment allegations had been made by women against Save the Children's former chief executive Justin Forsyth and former director of policy Brendan Cox. While both men said they did not accept all the claims made against them, the revelations led Forsyth to resign from his then role at Unicef.

The review called on Save the Children to improve its staff governance. It has set out five key recommendations: to work collaboratively with staff to reform the organisation, to tackle workplace ‘incivility’ and increase staff support, to increase diversity in the workforce and board, to review its whistleblowing procedures for when complaints are made, and to ensure HR is properly supported.

Current chief executive Kevin Watkins pledged to act on the findings.

"There have been failures in our organisational culture and processes, including widely-reported historic cases in which there were abuses of power and authority,” he said. "To the women affected, I unreservedly and unconditionally apologise on behalf of Save the Children. It must never happen again."

Commenting on the outcome of the review, founder of consultancy HR Hero for Hire, and former HR and OD director at Islamic Relief Worldwide, Shakil Butt said that investigating concerns and addressing them fairly in a confidential and professional manner should be part of every HR function, but often HR find themselves in difficulties when those concerns are levied at senior management on the mistaken premise that they, as 'business partners', are there to serve the business, rather than actually being the custodians of the values and 'doing the right thing'.

“If HR is seen as just an extension of management then they too become part of the problem complicit through their support, inaction and/or silence. This creates a lack of faith in HR that in turn leads to an under-reporting of incidents and toxic cultures,” he told HR magazine.

“Failing to tackle concerns against senior staff leads to a culture in which those of a certain pay grade are not held to account the same way say a junior member of staff would be treated. This inequity does not go unnoticed. However, for HR to be effective it needs to have support at the highest levels to be able to follow concerns to their conclusion without fear of reprisal against the member of staff that has raised concerns in confidence or against the HR function.”

He added that even if the support isn’t there HR must still “do the right thing”.

“Taking a stand to do the right thing is not easy but failing to take a stand can often lead to exposing the organisation to greater reputational risk as has been evident in recent cases. Turning a blind eye to concerns, whether of a sexual nature or otherwise, actually creates that exact culture that then allows more serious misconduct to occur – inaction legitimises further unacceptable behaviours,” he said.

"When I hear of a scandal I often wonder: what did HR know? When did they know? And what did they do to address the issue? Scandals often see senior officials in the headlines but if HR has not acted with integrity and/or failed to act then bigger questions need to be asked as it means one of the key checks and balances has failed and the likelihood is that the incident making the headlines is not likely to be an isolated case."

Daniel Peyton, managing partner at McGuireWoods London, said that while laws are in place to protect workers many still don’t feel protected.

“What seems increasingly clear from recent reports across a range of sectors and industries is that economically or otherwise vulnerable people do not always feel able to make use of these protections. What is also becoming clear is that a substantial cultural change is required to educate workers at all levels and to encourage and support those who report such mistreatment. This is a complex process that will not happen overnight,” he told HR magazine.

“However, providing the right reporting/whistleblowing mechanisms and ensuring proper and accountable oversight of the way they work in practice is an important starting point for providing the foundations necessary to begin to effect this cultural change.”

The Charity Commission is also separately investigating Save the Children around how it dealt with allegations against staff.

This comes after the charity sector has faced a series of sexual abuse scandals this year, which led MPs to label the sector guilty of “complacency verging on complicity” in a report back in July.