Let’s talk about bullying

Last week the Guardian published an article that reported allegations of bullying and poor practice regarding NDAs at Alzheimer’s Society. This blog by ACEVO head of policy Kristiana Wrixon is not about that case specifically but has been written in response to the issues it raises about bullying in the charity sector.

In Plain Sight

Last year ACEVO and the Centre for Mental Health released a research report which looked at bullying in the charity sector. Bullying can, and does, take place in any sector but we wrote the report because we want the charity sector to take the lead on tackling it. In Plain Sight found that bullying can take place in organisations of any size, in any sub-sector and impact people at all levels of seniority, whether in paid or unpaid positions. Culture and policy change, and regulatory reform is needed to effectively deal with bullying cases.

Bullying is always unacceptable, it should never be tolerated, reports should always be investigated and harmful behaviour must be dealt with appropriately. But simultaneously we have to find a better way of talking about bullying in the workplace. If discussions about bullying move into binary immovable statements about whether individuals or organisations are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ then we will not be able to have the conversations necessary to create change.  

The Charity Commission

I have experienced bullying twice in my charity career. Once within the organisation I was working for, and once by the CEO of a partner charity. In both examples the person was ‘well known’ for it and I was not the only person to be bullied. So with witnesses, evidence and fellow ‘victims’ to back me up what stopped me coming forward?

One reason is the lack of a third party or regulator that deals with cases. In the example where the bully worked for another charity, the chair supported their behaviour. I talked to another person who had previously reported both parties to the Charity Commission, but the Charity Commission had refused to investigate because it was outside its remit. 

That the Charity Commission rarely investigates bullying cases was something that came out in last year’s research too. I say this not to create a pile-on for the Charity Commission, because that also won’t help, but because we need the Commission to be more transparent about how few cases of bullying it can or does investigate. Without transparency and honesty about the challenges we face, we won’t find the solutions we all want.

Without a third party to turn to in order to resolve complaints (and if the board is not supportive, or if trustees are the problem), victims are faced with the choice of going public or accepting nothing will happen.

But going public can be harmful to the victim’s well-being and, in both cases for me, I didn’t want to generate negative publicity which could impact the brilliant work being carried out by others at that charity. It is a false binary to say a charity that employs a bully is not simultaneously delivering good, necessary work, but that is often how media articles present the issue. Of course, the work could be improved in a better environment, but good work takes place in bad conditions. It is fundamentally not fair for a person who is experiencing bullying to face an impossible choice between the pressure of making a public complaint and the pressure of facing a harmful work environment.


However, in the other case I experienced, I could have reported to the board. But I did not know the trustees well, my employment status was not secure and I was not in a financial position to risk losing my job. In a scenario of this nature, it is a culture of peer support and the presence of robust whistleblowing policies that will make the difference between a report being made and not.

Equally, trustees need to feel confident that lines of communication are open to staff who may wish to talk to them, and that due diligence is carried out when recruiting positions.

Without robust processes in place, charities – their CEOs, staff and trustees – are vulnerable to trial by media, whether that’s the national press or social media. When accusations of bullying are publicly made, charities need to be able to point to evidence that allegations have been investigated and that the appropriate action – whether exoneration or sanction – has been taken.

Hero or villain?

While the people I was bullied by made my life very difficult, I know that others had huge respect for them and they had a lot of influential friends. People are complex, capable of doing both good and bad things, and capable of being different things to different people. Approaching reports or disclosures about people we like who are doing bad things is hard but necessary; it’s similarly difficult to ensure that we don’t jump to conclusions that people we don’t like are ‘bad’ people.

And while some behaviour is clearly unacceptable (shouting, swearing, demeaning remarks), other behaviours may be harder to put a finger on. Years ago, I line managed someone who I was asked to upskill. I became so focused on upskilling them within a certain timescale that I became a micromanager and I stopped seeing that person’s individual needs. This person to my knowledge never made a complaint about me, but I have reflected back on this relationship in recent years and realised that, far from helping this person, I think I made them unhappy for which I am sorry. I could have been a better manager to them.

My current management style is wildly different from what it was eight years ago. I feel fairly confident now saying that the people I manage find me helpful and trusting. But I am both those people: one person’s positive experience does not invalidate another person’s negative one.

What next?

One of the recommendations from In Plain Sight was to initiate a sector-wide discussion about how to address bullying. ACEVO has started by talking to members in CEO forums and at our annual conference. We are keen to do more but meeting the scale of our ambition will require funding. I am also appealing to the Charity Commission to have a more honest, transparent public conversation about its role, remit and capacity to respond to reports made to it.

Bullying must be taken seriously, it must be investigated and when wrongdoing is found, appropriate action has to be taken to hold the bully accountable. Alongside this we have to get better at talking about bullying in all its complexity, supporting those who experience it to recover from their trauma and work with those who honestly want to change.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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