Practice What You Preach – Amnesty International

Governance Failings

green carabiner clip on green backgroundLast month, KonTerra Group published its Wellbeing Report into Amnesty International. It was asked to conduct the review by Amnesty itself following the tragic suicides of two Amnesty International workers in 2018.  The report was damning, finding that the charity had a “toxic” working environment and was besieged by bullying, discrimination, and public humiliation. It found that there was a severe “Us versus Them” dynamic and a complete distrust in senior management.  Amnesty International describes itself as the “world’s largest grassroots human rights organisation” and has even won a Nobel Peace prize for its work, so to say that the recent report into work culture is damaging to its credibility is an understatement.

The report provides lots of learnings for Amnesty, and all other organisations for that matter, and although it is rooted heavily in Human Resources (HR) advice and findings, it also tells us a lot about what happens when governance, in general, fails.

Amnesty International has accepted its failings raised in the report and is reportedly working hard to address the many issues raised by the report. The Senior Leadership team has in its entirety offered to resign and many measures are being undertaken to improve the culture at Amnesty and make amends. Today we pick out the governance ‘headlines’ from the report, the pitfalls and how to avoid poor governance in these areas


colour pencils in circle with tips facing inwardsVision and Values – Practice what you preach

Last month, our blog looked at building a strategy that encompassed clear vision and values. If anything, the problems at Amnesty shows what can happen when an organisation fails to live by its own values.

On its international website, under “What We Do” Amnesty says that it lobbies “governments, and other powerful groups…Making sure they keep their promises and respect international law.” A bold statement, and one that it has clearly and nobly lived up to many times. However, what this report highlights is that whilst researching and reporting on serious human rights abuses around the world, Amnesty itself has not kept its promises to its own staff and further that it has not respected national laws and norms relating to discrimination and health and safety of its own staff.

The website further says that Amnesty International “…speak[s] out for anyone and everyone whose freedom and dignity are under threat.” A statement that is clearly admirable, but unfortunately the report found that “many former and current staff describe Amnesty as an environment in which staff do not feel that they are valued, protected, or treated with respect and dignity.” A clear case of failing to practice what you preach.

All organisations must ensure that their values are applied to all aspects of their business. It is imperative that even where values are focussed externally, on your customers, suppliers or beneficiaries that they are also applied and lived internally. It is about creating a positive culture for everyone included in or touched by your organisation. The only way to truly realise your vision is to live your values throughout.

glass of water in clear tumbler on turquoise backgroundReview – Warts and all

The report was far reaching – a real warts and all delve into the working culture and treatment of staff, globally across the organisation. It is not easy to ask someone to tell you everything that is bad about yourself or your organisation and Amnesty should be commended for allowing such an in depth report, which was undoubtedly going to lead to significant reputational damage.

The damage of course had already been done following the tragic suicides in 2018. One of the victims, Gaëtan Mootoo, took his life in his office in Paris and left a note that made it clear that work pressures played a major part in his decision to end his life.It is clear that there is a lot to do, with the culture at Amnesty being described as “toxic” “adversarial” and “bullying” as far back as the 1990s. But by starting with such a far-reaching review, the organisation is giving itself a chance to make amends, fix the problems and safeguard its future, however long and difficult that road will be.

Perhaps all boards or leadership teams should ask themselves what they would learn if they opened themselves up to a “warts and all” review? We’re not suggesting that businesses actually commission such reviews as a matter of course but it may be worth thinking about what such a review would find… If there is a particular area of your business where the ideaof a thorough review leads to discomfort, then there are probably problems there that you should seek to review and rectify, even if just internally.

terracotta pot with small and new strawberry plant with one strawberry on plantHealth & Safety and Staff Wellbeing

Most organisations acknowledge that they have legal Health & Safety responsibilities to their workforce. Sometimes there are obvious physical H&S risks facing business, for example on a building site. But there are also less obvious, difficult to define risks to staff members’ mental health and wellbeing.

Very few organisations are working in as an inherently stressful organization as Amnesty International. The very nature of its mission and work means that secondary stress and vicarious trauma is to a certain extent an occupational hazard. However, the KonTerra report found that although this was the case and these types could not be eliminated from the roles performed, much of the stress highlighted by staff during the review were down to the organisational environment, and the many reports of “power misuse, discrimination, targeting, bullying, and other practices which have undermined wellbeing”. All factors which could and should be avoided by ensuring that there is strong governance, leadership and communication in place.

More and more organisations are recognising that stress-related illnesses are just as much of a risk to productivity as a physical injury and many recognise that unreasonable workloads can be a contributing factor. However, do management teams look at the wider culture and its potential effect on health & safety and wellbeing? Do they preside over a culture of discrimination, harassment and bullying? These issues are often seen as separate from Health & Safety – as falling into the HR realm and we wonder if such issues were viewed in the risk terms of Health & Safety compliance whether they would climb up the priority list for some?

Where it is established that staff face inherently stressful work environments, organisations must ensure that support offered is effective and sufficient. It is not, for example, always enough to supply access to counselling (whether via a telephone service or face to face sessions), if that counselling is not fit for purpose. At Amnesty, staff were offered 5 funded counselling sessions per year, but the report found that not only was this a lower number than offered by comparable organisations, but that the counsellors, whilst professionals, were not familiar with the unique nature of the work undertaken and so were not well-positioned to support them effectively. Any support offered by organisations must be fit for purpose and effective, otherwise they run the risk of being seen as a mere box-ticking exercise.

All businesses should considerstructures around Health & Safety and Wellbeing. Obviously, the types of structures will be dependent on the size and type of business in question but they should look for staff input into developing a comprehensive, well co-ordinated and informed approach to ensure adequate support of staff members throughout the organisation.

chain and cogs on yellow backgroundRolling out change programmes

Although the culture at Amnesty had been described as toxic for decades, the problems had been exacerbated by a major change programme known as the “Global Transition Programme” (GTP) which created “significant disruptions to team structures and resulted in further divisions”. The aim of the GTP was to decentralise the organisation with a rationale to live and work closer to the human rights abuses being investigated. The programme itself was largely supported by staff – they agreed with the vision and aims. But it was the way in which the programme was rolled out which caused so much damage to staff wellbeing and according to KonTerra the “perceived unreasonable pace and force with which the plan was implemented caused widespread disruption and distress and sowed many seeds of confusion, grief, and resentment.”

Large change programmes such as this are notoriously challenging to roll out. They are complex, expensive, disruptive and often hugely emotional for those involved. It is absolutely imperative that consultation is encompassing and effective and that staff wellbeing is put at the centre of such wholescale changes, especially where the very lives of those involved are so significantly affected.

Plans are often centred on minimalising pain and disruption by carrying out changes as quickly as possible, but clearly this is not always the right way. Leadership teams need to think deeply about the impact on all parts of their business and need to listen to their staff to help guide the right pace of change.

5 hands in fist pump

Relationship Between Management and Staff

This was one of the main themes to come out of the KonTerra report. The appalling relationship between the Senior Leadership Team and the rest of the organisation. Employees described an “Us and them” dynamic; “lack of transparency” and “poor communication”. There was such a severe lack of trust, that staff ascribed “malign intentions to the SLT on the basis of instinct rather than evidence”, leading to a distrust of almost any initiative from the SLT. There were many factors that had led to such a poor relationship, including the SLT’s readiness to dismiss concerns, especially of long serving staff, and the wellbeing of staff not being a priority. There was in short, no shared values between the SLT and the employees.

This had led to a blame culture which worked both ways with SLT blaming staff and staff blaming the SLT for the failings within the organisation.

Key recommendations from the KonTerra Report focus on improving these internal relations. Here are some of the recommendations that can be used as a basis for any organisation who feel that the relationship between management and staff could be improved:

  • Work to repair ruptures and foster a sense of safety and trust
  • Make creating a safe and respectful environment an on-going priority for upper management (Board, Senior Management)
  • Explore tools and strategies for demonstrating empathy, improving communication, managing conflict and becoming a more effective leadership team
  • Build a stronger sense of group cohesion, compassion, and respect.
  • Take steps to create a “development culture” that places a high value on the development of everyone in the organisation and includes taking responsibility for one’s own role in a conflict instead of placing blame.
  • Improve leadership skills throughout all levels which will help create a stronger sense of community and togetherness.
  • Look towards “healing frameworks” that allow staff to feel heard and valued. Include staff participation that acknowledges harm done and also looks forward to creating a better future.

Constantly aiming for good governance

As with all high-profile failings, there is a lot that can be learned and applied from the failings at Amnesty International, and it is worth taking stock when these stories break and looking at whether any improvements can be made to our own organisations. Good governance is a moving ideal and one that all organisations should be constantly striving to achieve – we can always be better!

Help where you need it

Bridgehouse Company Secretaries are brilliantly placed to help with all your governance needs.

For more information and to get in touch click here.


Amnesty International—Staff Wellbeing Review – January 2019 (which includes references to the “Review Into the Death of Gaëtan Mootoo” by James Laddie QC) – https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ORG6097632019ENGLISH.PDF






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