How many charities are covering up bad behaviour with NDAs? Let’s make them tell us.

I was dismayed to read the recent allegations against Alzheimer’s Society. The charity is accused of spending as much as £750,000 on NDAs with staff (Alzheimer’s Society denies the allegations). NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements, typically involve a payment to an employee on the condition that they do not disclose specific information about the organisation to anyone else.

NDAs do have some legitimate uses: no charity or business would want employees or ex-employees to share trade secrets with competitors. It’s arguable, however, whether NDAs used to cover up allegations of bullying, sexual harassment or other unethical behaviour are reasonable. I’d say no, especially because other notable users of NDAs include Harvey Weinstein, and the arbitration service Acas agrees with me.

Acas argues that using NDAs in this way “stops businesses from tackling the underlying issue” and that they “should not be used to hide a problem or brush it under the carpet”.

The open secret is that bullying is endemic in the charity sector

There is, sadly, an acknowledged problem with bullying in the charity sector, which is all the more distressing due to our supposed emphasis on ethical values. The issue has been documented in detail by ACEVO in their report “In Plain Sight”; I’m aware of anecdotal evidence from others; and unfortunately I’ve been the victim of bullying and discrimination myself.

The ACEVO report makes several much-needed recommendations regarding the need to improve workplace cultures and whistleblowing procedures and clarify the role of the Charity Commission. However, many of these assume good faith. I don’t see how they will make much of an impact on the charities that most urgently need to change – for example where a powerful senior leader is the perpetrator and unlikely to change their behaviour, and where trustees may be unaware or willing to turn a blind eye.

The ACEVO report also includes powerful examples of the impact of workplace bullying. It can destroy mental health, lead to breakdowns, create physical health issues, negatively affect personal relationships, and cause suicidal thoughts. I will not repeat their evidence here, but I urge you to read the report.

NDA reporting should be a mandatory part of charity accounts

It is currently impossible to know if, or to what extent, charities use NDAs to cover up complaints of bad behaviour. Perhaps it’s not a major problem in our sector, but I think this is an area worth exploring; the cost of ignoring it is far too high.

I believe that charities should be required to include a line in their accounts for NDA payoffs where a complaint is involved, summarising the total amount and the number of NDAs made.

It is clear that allegations of bullying and large payoffs are potentially highly damaging to charity reputations. I can’t imagine that many donors would be happy to find out that their money was being used to silence staff.

By forcing charities to report a number, cultural problems will quickly make themselves starkly known. The reputational risk of inaction will become untenable.

I often wonder if trustees are aware of what’s being done in their name. If they’re not aware of a bullying or otherwise toxic culture, then this would focus their attention on the issue. And if they don’t care – perhaps because the perpetrator is known to get “good results” – it would force them to take action for the sake of their charity’s reputation.

The ACEVO report found that bullying was often an “open secret” in the organisations where it occurred. Well, my view is that if everyone already knows, the knowledge should be shared as widely and frankly as possible. This would lead to some extremely uncomfortable conversations, but would ultimately result in a happier, healthier and more effective charity sector.

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