Former employees warn of ‘toxic’ culture at domestic abuse charity Refuge

22 Jun 2018 News

Domestic abuse charity Refuge faces claims that it has a "toxic" working environment where staff would cry at their desks because of treatment by managers, and where its chief executive is "grossly overpaid".

Earlier this year the trustees made a serious incident report to the Charity Commission over the behaviour of a senior staff member and the treatment of staff. The Commission opened an operational compliance case, and trustees appointed an independent investigator.

Refuge, a charity which provides support to women and children experiencing domestic violence, said it took “immediate” action once a complaint was made and has made changes to its governance.

Refuge has an income of £13.3m. It employs over 200 people and has nearly 70 volunteers, according to data filed with the Charity Commission. 

High pressure and overwork 

Reviews posted on Glassdoor – a website that rates employers – describe the charity as “toxic” and warn others not to work there. The average rating on the site is 2.1 out of 5. 

One reviewer said it was “not the charity I thought they were”. Another described it as the “charity that lost its cause”. 

Reviewers also suggested it was hypocritical behaviour considering the type of charity it is. One said: “For an organisation that is supposed to be about empowering women, the mostly female staff I worked with were incredibly disempowered.” 

Two reviewers reported that staff would cry at their desks over working conditions.

Chief executive ‘grossly overpaid’ 

The earliest complaint on Glassdoor dates back to 2013, when the reviewer described the chief executive as “grossly overpaid”. 

Sandra Horley joined Refuge in 1983, and according to most recent set of accounts for the year ending March 2017 had a total remuneration package of up to £220,000, including health cover and pension supplement.

She earns more than the chief executives of 84 charities in the haysmacintyre / Charity Finance 100 Index, including Oxfam, RNLI and the National Trust.

Serious incident report to the Charity Commission 

At the beginning of this year the charity reported a serious incident to the Charity Commission, prompting the regulator to open a compliance case. 

A spokeswoman said: “The Commission opened a compliance case into Refuge in early 2018 after receiving a serious incident report from the charity regarding concerns about the treatment of staff members and the behaviour of a senior staff member.

"The trustees took appropriate action by reporting this to the Commission and appointing an independent investigator to carry out a full investigation into the issues raised. We sought further information from the trustees about their general governance and how the charity safeguards and supports its staff. 

“The charity responded to our concerns and informed us that they have put in place a number of steps to deal with the concerns including increasing trustee presence within the charity, reviewing a number of their policies, implementing a framework of organisational values and reviewing staff workloads.”

The regulator has now closed its case. 

A spokeswoman for Refuge said: “A complaint was received against the charity.  The trustees took immediate action and arranged for it to be independently investigated. Following the complaint some changes have been made to governance structures. The Charity Commission was satisfied with the action taken and the case is now closed.”

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