‘Bullying culture’ and ‘toxic’ urge to protect brand found at Amnesty International UK in racism inquiry

17 Jun 2022 News

Amnesty International UK has “a culture that bullies” linked to an urge to “maintain the excellent reputation of the organisation”, an independent inquiry into allegations of racism at the charity has found.

A full report published this week found that the charity exhibits “systemic racism” and has failed to introduce effective equality, inclusion and anti-racism policies.

The human rights charity has accepted all the recommendations of the inquiry, which found that there had been “insufficient buy-in to anti-racism and equalities” at the organisation and that inclusion had “not been central to [its] overall corporate strategy and business plans”.

Consultancy Global HPO, which led the inquiry, found some efforts to improve at Amnesty UK over the past year such as its inclusion, diversity, equity and anti-racism (IDEA) plan introduced in January, but it said this was “nascent, still very fragile and can be strengthened”.

‘Tolerance for abusive behaviour’

Global HPO was appointed to conduct an independent inquiry after reports last year after former staff and board members raised concerns about systemic racism. 

After the concerns were raised, Amnesty UK apologised and four senior leaders left, but they did not link their resignations to the allegations. 

The consultancy has now published the findings and recommendations from its first stage of inquiry, which included reviewing policies, analysing employment data from 2017 to 2021 and interviews with former and current staff of the charity.

The inquiry found that bullying at the charity was highlighted more than any other issue in the testimonies and focus group sessions.

“It is important to note here that this was not just about bullying from managers to more junior staff, but also upwards from junior staff to managers and across the organisation between colleagues including volunteer activists,” it said.

“Protectionism and activism contributes to a culture that bullies, together with tolerance for bad and abusive behaviour. Layer institutional racism over such a culture then racist bullying (as well as other forms of bullying related to protected characteristics) is the inevitable result.”

‘Urge to protect brand became toxic’

The inquiry found a “powerful impulse” to protect Amnesty UK’s brand and maintain its reputation, which it said “becomes toxic when it ‘tip toes’ around a negative connotation and leaves it to furtively gnaw its way into the organisational culture – unaddressed and uncontrolled”.

“AIUK needs to learn to ‘own’ its history and stories – good and bad – especially bad. It needs to acknowledge them, reflect and learn from them and build on that learning to address the narrative and develop new approaches that reflect positive and welcome change,” it said.

Amnesty: ‘Change is long overdue’

In response to the full report, Sen Raj, chair of Amnesty International UK, said: “This inquiry has unpacked the multifaceted dimensions of institutional racism in AIUK.

“We are especially grateful to individuals who shared their experiences of racism in AIUK, and to Global HPO for carefully listening to those testimonies and providing us with clear suggestions to address the manifestations of racism in AIUK’s organisational culture and infrastructure. The difficult and vital work of dismantling institutional racism is ongoing.”

Sacha Deshmukh, the charity’s chief executive, said: “It is critical in the change that we need to make at Amnesty UK that we acknowledge that his report makes abundantly clear the scale of the transformation we must make to change lots about Amnesty UK as a place to work.  

“GHPO have helped us to identify where we must make changes and we will not shy away from this work, especially as it is clear it is long overdue. I am glad that the inquiry team have recognised that some improvements have started here in the last year, but that doesn’t in any way diminish the seriousness of the findings nor should it make us at all complacent about the task ahead of us.

“But I do believe that with a transformation we can make Amnesty UK an example of a cause-driven organisation with an excellent working environment and culture for all colleagues. That should be our goal, and it is our duty not just to our colleagues but to our hundreds of thousands of supporters that we deliver it.”

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