What can HR learn from the current Save the Children news story?

Save the Children is facing some tough questions about how it handled allegations against senior employees of misconduct and harassment, reportedly dating back to 2012 and 2015. Whilst the charity is carrying out a “root and branch review” of its organisational culture, the Charity Commission has started its own investigation into how Save the Children handled these allegations.  Only yesterday the ex-chairman of the charity was questioned by MPs about the handling of these investigations and the use of lawyers.

         “reputational and financial damage seems inevitable”

Whatever the findings, and however openly the charity embraces the outcome, reputational and financial damage seems inevitable.

This is a difficult time for a charity with an unquestionably strong purpose at its core, a purpose which is no doubt felt passionately by those who work there. However, this story really does highlight an important point – irrespective of how worthy the overall purpose of an organisation, and how much energy is invested in that purpose, the same energy needs to be invested in creating a positive workplace culture for those who are trying to deliver it. A workplace where the values of the organisation are reflected internally and concerns can be raised and properly heard.

We don’t know what happened at Save the Children and this won’t be known until investigations are completed.  However, as lawyers working in this field, we are reminded of an all too familiar scenario – when a challenging situation arises (such as a grievance or a bullying/harassment complaint) it is all too easy for HR (and some lawyers too) to focus on just dealing with that specific issue and avoiding legal exposure (e.g. an Employment Tribunal claim).  We hope that this story is a general wake up call – to all organisations (not just the charity sector), to zoom out and look at the bigger picture when addressing issues like these.

         “risk is best managed with a truly open mind”

A complaint or grievance (whether formally raised or not) might be an invaluable signal to HR teams that there is a bigger problem to address within the organisation – even if it means admitting some fault in the short term. Risk is best managed with a truly open mind with regard to the wider issues that may arise now and in the future, in relation to reputation and the impact on investors, customers and donors. It might also be a positive first step towards demonstrating an honest and open approach to addressing a deeper issue, and starting to build that positive workplace culture that could make a real difference.

         “a failure to look at the bigger picture”

A failure to look at the bigger picture could create much greater problems for an organisation later on. Whoever dealt with the complaints which were reportedly made at Save the Children in 2012 and 2015 (even if they did their very best at the time) would probably not have dreamed that these internal issues would make such big news in 2018, having such an impact on donations, funding bids and overall reputation.

So, next time you face a complaint, grievance or even a rumour within your organisation, that certain behaviours are not consistent with the working culture you aspire to, just pause and contemplate how this could impact your organisation as a whole, not just now, but even a few years down the line.

Our comment

This isn’t just a lesson for the voluntary sector, but for all. Organisations rely on their reputation and the support of stakeholders (whether they are staff, customers, investors or donors) to survive. This story demonstrates the importance of managing people and risk with a genuinely open mind, and reflecting your purpose and values in all that you do - even if in the short term that might mean admitting failures and conceding some liability. In the longer term it may be the better risk management strategy.