Charity begins at home for the bullied

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The Independent Online
FAITH, HOPE, charity, but the greatest of these is charity. Not for the victims of bullying in the charitable sector it isn't.

We tend to think of charities as the "goodies" in a world of cut-throat business and self-seeking politics. But bullies can still thrive in voluntary organisations, as they are properly known. Indeed, the unique structure of voluntary organisations can be conducive to a culture of bullying.

Sally McKinnon worked for a large national charity and was bullied by the chief executive. She says that the experience put her under strain. Her GP signed her off for six weeks with anxiety. On one occasion McKinnon's boss accused her of stealing some money from the office. The boss then took disciplinary action against her, but failed to let her know. McKinnon was asked to appear before the charity's management committee. "I didn't know I was in a disciplinary hearing until they asked me if I had any questions," she says. She wasn't the only victim: there were other colleagues in the same situation who left because of her boss. Her predecessor had a breakdown.

Ms McKinnon approached her trade union and the matter is still under investigation. After two years of bullying, she left the job for another, still in the voluntary sector. What angers her most is the lack of accountability - no one was in a position to stop the boss's behaviour.

One of the conditions of attaining charitable status is to have a management committee composed of volunteers. Of her committee, Ms McKinnon says: "It was made up of well-intentioned individuals who hadn't a clue about running a business. They joined in the old days and were not competent to take the tough decisions confronting them. So they had to rely on the chief executive's advice. All too often a committee has a vested interest in their chief executive - they appoint them after all."

Ms McKinnon's colleague, Jamie Dickson, a senior social worker, was also bullied by the chief executive. Eventually, he had to discuss with his family the possibility of resigning to save his mental health. They understood that it would mean having to sell the house and do without, but agreed anyway. The denouement came when Mr Dickson was ordered to undertake a fairly meaningless task when he knew that there had been a call from a suicidal member of the public begging for help. Mr Dickson was in no doubt where his professional and humanitarian priorities lay. Tending to the distress call cost him his job. He resigned while on suspension.

For Mr Dickson, too, the issue of lack of accountability in the sector is bewildering. The local authority was funding his and his social work team's salaries and was aware of the situation. A local councillor sat on the committee. Mr Dickson says: "There is nowhere to turn if neither your committee nor the funding authority cares." And, as he points out, the voluntary sector is in the people business: the impact of bullying does not affect the number of widgets you produce in a day, but the lives of real, and often vulnerable people.

Stuart Etherington, the National Council of Voluntary Organisations' chief executive, points out that bullying in the sector is no worse than anywhere else, adding: "The ethos for which the sector has come to be known - its caring attitude - applies to the workforce as well as to those who benefit from their work." Fair enough, but who is enforcing that? Mr Dickson suggests that organisations should be monitored more closely by funders who should be looking out for patterns in staff movement. Investigations should be mounted where large numbers of staff are quitting an organisation within a short period.

Alan Bradshaw, of Edinburgh-based Equilibrium Associates, an organisation dealing with stress management at an organisational and individual level, is clear about who the perpetrators are. He says that 90 per cent of bullies are of higher status than their victims. "One of the great ironies about bullying cultures is that they are often found in organisations dedicated to caring. Bullying causes stress, depression, anxiety and occasionally death through suicide," he says.

Professor Cary Cooper, of Umist, distinguishes between "psychopathic bullies", the ones who have a need to put others down to boost their own status, and "situational bullies" - those who are bullying because they themselves are under stress.

He says: "Bullying is more of a problem than it was 10 years ago because managers are increasingly under-resourced."

Until now it has been hard to gauge the size of the problem, but the British Occupational Health Research Foundation has awarded Professor Cooper a grant to investigate the extent of bullying in the UK workforce. His research will include the voluntary sector. Both Professor Cooper and Alan Bradshaw agree that the first step towards rooting out institutionalised bullying is an independent audit of the organisation. Then training the perpetrators in coping mechanisms to deal with their own stress. They also agree that if the behaviour continues then the bully should be removed.

Glyn Hawker, senior regional manager with the public service union, Unison, contends that much of the bullying and harassment in charities comes from the management committees themselves, where the potential for emotional blackmail - unpaid volunteers managing paid staff - is very real. Her advice to the victims of bullying is that first they should tell their union representative. And if you are not in a union then join one. She says that it is crucial that victims keep a diary. Events in isolation can seem trivial, but put together, a pattern can emerge.

Bradshaw sounds a note of warning to organisations: "Compensation for psychiatric injury can be very large indeed, and the ceiling is about to be removed from unfair dismissal claims. Very soon, organisations will realise that, unless they tackle bullying, they will pay the price. Literally."

(Victims names have been changed.)