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Let’s talk about bullying (part 2)

The first ‘Let’s talk about bullying’ blog was published last year, you can read it here.

Blog by Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at ACEVO.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

Bullying has again risen up the agenda following an article published in Third Sector based on a leaked independent report on the workplace culture at NCVO. As a result of this coverage, the campaign #NotJustNCVO was created to raise awareness about discriminative bullying in charities. The organisers of the campaign are now working on developing their strategy and governance. I am a huge fan of the campaign and the bravery of its organisers and look forward to what they plan next.

#NotJustNCVO is, I think, an example in which speaking out online can generate the kind of momentum that over time creates culture shift. Since ACEVO and the Centre for Mental Health’s 2019 report on bullying in the sector, In Plain Sight, and report with Voice4Change England (Home Truths) on racism in charities, I have received disclosures about harmful behaviour that has taken place, and/or continues to take place. And because of this, I know that there are people using the #NotJustNCVO on Twitter who have bullied others, who have been racist, who have discriminated against others. This is incredibly emotionally challenging for those harmed by these people, a group of people among which I count myself.

It is hard to ‘call out’ these people publicly because in many (but not all) cases that person has been wronged by someone else too and they should have the right to talk about that experience and seek accountability for it. This speaks to the problem I referenced in a blog last year about the need to find a ‘better way’ to talk about bullying in the charity sector. I talked then about how people are different things to different people. The hero in one person’s story is the villain in another. So how can we move forward while this duality exists? How do we support people speaking out, without that support making it more difficult for others to come forward because their perpetrator is seen as ‘heroic’? And how do we create accountability for everyone, so no-one has to hide their trauma? (Sorry I don’t have answers to these questions yet).

Recently, I have started to think about whether me becoming more ‘outspoken’ on issues of bullying, racism, ableism may make it harder for people to talk to me, or report me if I do something that harms them. While I am trying to learn and grow, I know that I am still capable of doing something like this because I am in the (permanent) process of trying to unlearn a lifetime’s worth of cultural and societal expectations.

The onus is on me to make sure I act in way that makes people around me feel safe enough to raise issues like this with me. I also think about how I can ensure my response would not be governed by the kind of fear and anger that often takes over when a person receives information that challenges their most valued perceptions of themselves. This reaction is ultimately retraumatising for the individual who has taken the step to raise it.

So, I ask those speaking about issues of bullying who have themselves held positions of power to think about times they may have perpetuated unfair systems or harmed others. This isn’t about self-flagellation for performance sake, this is a question of honest self-reflection which can be an entirely private act, but I think should inform how you engage publicly.

I have been cautious about writing this blog because I do not want to, nor would I condone the use of it to, say that people shouldn’t speak out publicly. We do need more people to talk openly about bullying and one of the criticisms I have seen is that not enough leaders have publicly responded to the #NotJustNCVO campaign. I was also disappointed by the lack of attention given to a recent open letter in Third Sector from a group of leaders from minoritised communities asking for sector leaders to hold themselves accountable for discrimination.

Speaking out publicly and being accountable don’t, and in the case of accountability can’t, only take place on Twitter. However, employees in the voluntary sector are watching and they do want to know what leaders are doing, even if the answer to that is simply that you are asking yourself some tough questions at the moment that you don’t know the answers to.

These are the kind of questions I think are important for individuals in leadership positions to ask themselves, whether they have experienced bullying personally in the past or not.

  • Do I know about rumours of poor behaviour towards someone I know/like and haven’t talked to them about it? Does this make me complicit?
  • How would I respond if someone told me that they felt bullied by me?
  • When did I last explicitly talk about bullying to my team?
  • Does my team know how to report a complaint of bullying against me without going through me?
  • How can I best support those close to me to be accountable for their actions?

And questions that may help us get to culture change in the sector:

  • What does a safe sector look like and what is my role in that?
  • What does accountability look like? How can it be created?
  • What resource needs to be dedicated to this problem?

When ACEVO released In Plain Sight we said we would report against our recommendations and the targets we set ourselves every six months. Progress has been slower than we would have liked, due in large part to the capacity of the team and a lack of further funding, but we will be holding more member meetings in the coming months to continue to take forward the work, and we continue to talk to the Charity Commission about the recommendation made for it in the report.

I hope we can continue to have open, honest and challenging conversations together.

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