Save the Children 'let down' staff over mismanagement of complaints about ex-CEO, inquiry finds

Save the Children ‘let down’ staff and the public over its mismanagement of harassment complaints made about the charity’s ex-CEO, a damning report has revealed.

The Charity Commission released its findings from an inquiry into the charity today, criticising failures to respond to allegations of workplace harassment made by staff against the former CEO, Justin Forsyth.

The regulator began investigating the international children’s charity when it came under public scrutiny over its record on staff culture and its handing of complaints against two former senior members of staff, including Forsyth.

The watchdog’s highly anticipated inquiry today revealed the handling of complaints made to the charity was ‘so poor in certain aspects that it amounted to mismanagement’.

The regulator said it failed to properly investigate the complaints and follow its own processes when staff members made allegations of inappropriate conduct against Forsyth in 2012 and 2015.

Save the Children was also criticised for its failure to identify Forsyth as the subject of harassment complaints when it made a serious incident report to the regulator in 2015. This amounted to the omission of “material facts”, and to mismanagement, the regulator said.

The charity also came under fire for failing to notify the trustee board of some of the issues ‘as early as it should have been’.

“The trustee board was not informed of allegations made against the charity’s CEO in 2012, and did not receive a copy of the full findings of an external report on corporate culture in 2015,” the report said.

The regulator added that the combination of these failures ‘let down complainants, staff and the wider public'.

Its inquiry also concluded that statements made at the time were ‘not wholly accurate’ and ‘unduly defensive’, which fell short of the standards expected of charities.

‘Corrosive impact on internal culture’

The results of the inquiry further revealed that the mismanagement of complaints had a ‘corrosive impact’ on the charity’s internal culture and highlighted a number of ‘serious weaknesses’.

The charity initiated its own review into workplace culture and commissioned Lewis Silkin law firm to do so among other things.

But the report from the findings revealed there were ‘significant employ-ee engagement issues’ and that the ‘biggest behavioural cues’ for staff come from what their leaders are ‘seen to role model and tolerate’, the regulator said.

Save the Children must ‘work hard to rebuild reputation’

Commenting on the inquiry, Charity Commission CEO, Helen Stephen-son said Save the Children UK “let complainants and the public down” and “must work hard now to rebuild its reputation”.

“Charities should be distinct from other types of organisations in their attitude and behaviour, in their motivations and methods. The public rightly expect that; so do the majority of people working in charities, who deserve a workplace culture that is healthy, supportive, and safe,” she said.

“Creating that culture is not just about putting the right systems and processes in place; it also requires leaders who model the highest standards of behaviour and conduct, and who are held to account properly and consistently when they fall short.

“This responsibility is especially pronounced in large, household name charities: their leaders are powerful, and highly respected. The impact of failures in leadership in such charities can also have implications for public trust and confidence beyond the charity itself. So they must use that power responsibly, and in a way that reflects legitimate expectations of charity.”

'Some elements of good practice'

The regulator has acknowledged that while mainly failings took place at Save the Children, there were 'some aspects of good practice'.

It found the charity recognised the seriousness of the complaints made and has said there is 'no evidence of deliberate attempts to brush complaints under the carpet', nor did the inquiry find evidence of 'inappropriate involvement' in the handling of complaints by the charity’s then chair.

The regulator said the charity did the right thing in instigating two separate reviews of workplace culture – the Lewis Silkin review in 2015 and the Shale Review in 2018.

It added that it also recognises the charity has since taken steps to improve the charity’s workplace culture and respond to the external reviews’ findings of significant problems around employee engagement.

Current CEO: 'I have unreservedly apologised to the women affected'

The current Save the Children CEO, Kevin Watkins said the organisation is "facing up" to "much deeper lessons" about its workplace culture.

"I have unreservedly apologised to the women affected for the inadequate handling of their complaints and for the way we reacted in the media," he said.

"I’m aware that the failures highlighted in these investigations put at risk trust that so many people have invested in our organisation. All of us at Save the Children UK are incredibly grateful for your support – and we will be doing everything in our power to repay that support by delivering on our ambition for children.

"Our organisation is built on compassion, trust and respect. These values define who we are. They are at the heart of what our charity stands for. They are what motivate our staff as they work to bring hope to some of the world’s most vulnerable children – and they underpin our relationships with the public, partners and governments.

"These same values should be reflected in the workplace and in the experience of staff working for Save the Children UK. We have not always lived up to this – and we are working hard to learn from where we have gone wrong.

"Thanks to an independent review of culture and subsequent assessment of the progress we’ve made, I’m confident we’re heading in the right direction – but we still have work to do."

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