Human rights campaign group Amnesty International has said it will lose most of its senior leadership team after a scathing report slammed the organization’s “toxic” workplace culture.
Five of the NGO’s seven-strong senior leadership team have either left or are in the process of leaving. And as part of the organization’s reform program, the replacement senior management team will be cut to just four members.
Amnesty’s secretary-general, Kumi Naidoo, ordered an independent review into the organization’s working practices after two employees killed themselves last year.
In May 2018, Gaëtan Mootoo, 65, killed himself in Amnesty’s Paris offices. He left a note talking of stress and overwork. A subsequent inquiry found he was unhappy over a “justified sense of having been abandoned and neglected.”
Six weeks later, Rosalind McGregor, 28, a British intern working at Amnesty’s Geneva office, killed herself at her family home in Surrey. While an inquiry into her death noted “personal reasons” as being involved, her family said they felt Amnesty could have done more to address her mental health.
The effectiveness of the organization’s management was one of the core areas of the review’s focus, and it was severely criticized: Many respondents said the senior leadership team simply did not care about them—a damning indictment for a group whose mission is to uphold and champion human rights and fairness.
The report pointed to an “us versus them” dynamic between employees and management while one current staff member described Amnesty as having “a toxic culture of secrecy and mistrust.”
“Across many interviews the word ‘toxic’ was used to describe the Amnesty work culture as far back as the 1990s. So were the phrases ‘adversarial’, ‘lack of trust’, and ‘bullying,’” the report said.
Around 475 staff members were surveyed for the independent review, which was published in February. One of its more alarming revelations was that nearly two-thirds of employees thought their wellbeing was not a priority for the organization, despite many workers’ direct experience of working in war zones and with victims of conflicts and human rights abuses. Counselling services were also inadequate, were too U.K.-centric, and did not have employees’ trust.
The review found that the top five reported sources of stress all involved workload and management culture, and a significant proportion of staff (39 percent) reported they had developed mental or physical health issues as the direct result of working at Amnesty. The human rights group’s efforts to support staff wellbeing, however, were described as “ad hoc,” “reactive,” and “piecemeal.”
It also found organizational culture and management failures were the root cause of most staff wellbeing issues, and that the group’s people and organizational development function had “largely failed” in recent years “to fulfil its key roles as an impartial advisor to staff and the guardian of workplace standards.” The organization was lambasted for its “lack of transparency,” “poor communication,” “failures of management accountability,” and expletive-ridden, bullying approach. Allegations of nepotism and favoritism were also recorded.
Many staff gave specific examples of experiencing or witnessing bullying by managers.
There were reports of managers belittling staff in meetings and making demeaning and menacing comments, for example: “You should quit. If you stay in this position, your life will be a misery.”
There were multiple accounts of discrimination on the basis of race and gender, and in which women, staff of color, and LGBT employees were allegedly targeted or treated unfairly.
In a statement issued at the same time the report was released in February, Amnesty’s secretary-general said the organization’s own engagement surveys had “already indicated some time ago” that the charity was “facing an alarming trust deficit in the International Secretariat,” adding that “the senior leadership team takes shared responsibility for the climate which emerged where colleagues felt, or continue to feel, undervalued and unsupported.”
On May 9, Naidoo presented an overview of his new leadership review and restructure, which involves putting a transitional leadership team in place until a new coalition leadership team becomes operational in November.
Amnesty said the senior leadership team accepted responsibility, and all seven had offered to resign. Five of the seven senior leaders, based mainly in London and Geneva, are now believed to have left or are in the process of leaving the organization.
This week, Amnesty confirmed to Compliance Week that the five individuals that have either already left or who are leaving are: Colm Ó Cuanacháin, senior director at the office of the secretary-general; Minar Pimple, senior director, global operations; Richard Eastmond, senior director, people and services; Tawanda Mutasah, senior director for law and policy; and Anna Neistat, senior director for research.
Concerns about Amnesty’s leadership style and workplace culture have been raised for years. Unite, a U.K.-based trade union that represents hundreds of Amnesty staff in offices around the world, revealed last October that one in three employees surveyed at the charity felt “badly treated or bullied at work since 2017.”
Amnesty is not the only human rights organization to come under fire for its treatment of employees.
A report released in January said that bullying and harassment were commonplace at Oxfam (in February 2018 the charity had been accused of covering up claims staff sexually exploited female victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti), while Save the Children released a report last October that found that almost one in five staff at the organization said they had experienced harassment or discrimination in the previous three years.
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