A respectful organisational culture is crucial to safeguarding

1 October 2018
Author: Aneeta Williams

“Organisational culture” is often described as the personality of that organisation; “the way we do things around here”. It encompasses the underlying values, beliefs and codes of practice that make an organisation what it is. It can be seen through behaviour, language, customs, rules, group interaction and habits. 

Examining organisational culture is pivotal to safeguarding. How organisations treat their staff and representatives is reflective on how we treat our partners and those we seek to help. In the current climate, I’m glad the international development sector is finally speaking a language that safeguarding colleagues know only too well and making concerted efforts to improve. 

Safeguarding is so much more than policies and procedures (although this is essential). Every employee needs to feel that his or her dignity is recognised and respected if we want to nurture a truly safe workforce

Impact of not nurturing a supportive workplace

A respectful workplace brings enormous benefits to organisations and there are ramifications of not paying enough attention to this.  Great ideas are conjured up in boardrooms in Western cities, sold to philanthropists and institutional donors eager to change the face of poverty and implemented in countries without enough regard for the safety and security of all those involved. Specialist technical advice, risk assessments, beneficiary and local partner consultations are often forgotten or tagged on later. 

It doesn’t end there. Not taking advantage of the skills and experience of the workforce, stealing credit for others’ success and failing to recognise achievements leads to employees feeling demotivated and results in high staff turnover. Frequent deployments of young men and women to insecure and unfamiliar environments without proper procedures or training leads to burn-out. Lessons are compiled for reports but are not actually being learnt. Information gathered from complaints or exit interviews remain hearsay without proper investigation. Cultural audits through “anonymous” staff surveys provide some opportunity for organisational self-reflection, but results in little or no tangible action. Campaigns to safeguard women’s rights or challenge modern slavery are for public-facing support only and are rarely understood internally.  

The aid sector is now acknowledging its complicity in colonial hierarchical structures, systems of oppression, continuing inequalities and power imbalance. Are organisational governance structures representative of the people we serve? What influence do donors have on organisational culture? Are concerns being raised and if not, why not? 

Recommendations for cultivating a respectful culture for safeguarding

  1. Acknowledge that bias, inequality and power imbalances exist and take positive steps to challenge this in leadership and governance structures.  According to Green Park’s Report, 34% of the largest 100 charities have no ethnic diversity in their leadership team, and women occupy just 27.5% of chair, chief executive and chief financial officer positions, despite making up 65% of the workforce.
  2. Trust is the cornerstone of a respectful relationship. Leaders should demonstrate this by delegating important tasks, providing staff freedom to pursue creative ideas and publicly backing them in critical situations. According to a McKinsey Global Survey of more than 1,000 executives, managers, and employees, praise from an immediate manager, attention from a leader, and opportunities to head a project impact more on staff motivation than monetary incentives.
  3. Encourage regular constructive and affirmative feedback in supportive environments for improvement. Respect is an important feedback mechanism and catalyst for professional and personal growth. 
  4. Listen, listen, listen – without judgement. Keep an eye out for early warning signs and for patterns.
  5. Understand that age, gender, ethnicity, language, nationality, sexuality and disability are just some of the factors that make complainants feel vulnerable and may hinder them to come forward.
  6. Adopt a survivor-centred approach. Support complainants and do not ostracise them. Provide them access to independent advice to reduce possible conflict of interest internally
  7. Leaders need to live and breathe the values of the organisation and staff will naturally emulate this. Values need to be properly thought through, understood and acted upon.
  8. Demonstrate respect by investing in diverse workforces affirming each employee with their unique strengths and talents and highlighting those who have exceeded expectations in equal measure. Respect is a two-way street, not a hierarchical one.
  9. Reduce risks and develop multi-pronged strategies to deal with bias, discrimination, bullying and harassment, as Grace Roache says.   
  10. Develop and safeguard effective complaints mechanisms that are well-resourced and provided priority in risk assessments and follow-up actions. 

International NGOs that are mature enough to be challenged in their current practice will ride out the current safeguarding storm. They will emerge stronger and safer in their recruitment and support for their workplace and those impacted by their programmes and for this, I am very glad. 

Our new training course gives you the skills and resources to promote a culture of respect within your organisation and deliver customised sexual harassment prevention training programmes.

About the author

Aneeta Williams

Aneeta Williams is a former lawyer turned international development and humanitarian practitioner. Her specialisms include International Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, Gender and SGBV and Safeguarding and Protection.