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‘Toxic’ Amnesty Workplace Sparks Criticism of Australian Social Sector Culture

13 February 2019 at 5:29 pm
Maggie Coggan
A staff review uncovering a “toxic workplace environment” in Amnesty International’s London office has sparked criticism over the unspoken, harmful workplace culture within some of Australia’s social sector.

Maggie Coggan | 13 February 2019 at 5:29 pm


‘Toxic’ Amnesty Workplace Sparks Criticism of Australian Social Sector Culture
13 February 2019 at 5:29 pm

A staff review uncovering a “toxic workplace environment” in Amnesty International’s London office has sparked criticism over the unspoken, harmful workplace culture within some of Australia’s social sector.

The review, which was commissioned following the suicides of two staff members in 2018, found a dangerous “us and them” mentality between management and staff, which it said threatened Amnesty’s status as a humanitarian leader.

“Any organisation that touts protecting human rights as its mission but is itself mired in a conflictual and adversarial culture will lose credibility,” the report said.  

“As organisational rifts and evidence of nepotism and hypocrisy become public knowledge they will be used by government and other opponents of Amnesty’s work to undercut or dismiss Amnesty’s advocacy around the world, fundamentally jeopardising the organisation’s mission.”

While the report only interviewed staff from the London Amnesty office, Jeremy Poxon, spokesperson for the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, told Pro Bono News the issues raised in the report were present in Australian organisations too.

He said an issue he had faced personally was not feeling he could speak up about being treated badly at an organisation, out of fear of being blacklisted by the community, or damaging the reputation of an organisation that worked on an issue he was attached to.     

“A huge fear I’ve had, and many others have had, is that if you just stand up for your basic rights of the worker, or go public about some poor treatment that you’ve suffered by someone who is a real leader and figurehead in a progressive space that you’ll be blacklisted from this entire movement,” Poxon said.

“It’s an open secret where people are privately talking among themselves but no one’s quite willing to make a stand because they might damage the reputation of an organisation we really believe in socially.”

The latest review, released publicly on 6 February, uncovered widespread claims of bullying, harassment, public humiliation, discrimination, and abuses of power from management within Amnesty’s International Secretariat.

It revealed staff felt their hard work within the organisation was not appreciated by management, and senior staff used Amnesty’s mission as a reason to not deal with complaints.

“Doing so under the guise that staff ‘should be grateful for being able to work at Amnesty’,” the report said.   

“Amnesty’s efforts to support staff wellbeing have been ad hoc, reactive and piecemeal: Amnesty has made some nascent attempts to explore wellbeing and has engaged a range of staff care providers for counselling-related services.”

Poxon said because the sector attracted very compassionate and hardworking people, who were passionate and emotionally connected to the issues they were working on, it could make it a hard choice to speak out about being treated badly.

“I know there are heaps of great young passionate workers copping crappy treatment, and being bullied because they believe in the organisation’s principles so deeply,” he said.

“It’s almost like it can come down to a choice. You could either stay and cop the bad treatment, because you feel like the work they’re doing is fantastic, or you leave the organisation, which stops you from doing the work.”

He also said organisations could often lose sight of how they treat workers because they were facing financial or organisational stress.

“We are in the grips of a very conservative government that’s making life really hard for these organisations, and sadly in every sector, when the organisation is under pressure, the staff always suffer the most,” he said.  

Poxon said it was up to the sector to come together, and talk openly about the issue and figure out the problem, in whatever form that may be.

“Something like the Amnesty Report would definitely be helpful in an Australian context, given the big explosion of conversation surrounding it after it came to light,” he said.

“It has to start with organisations coming together, for the first time ever really, and actually declare that this is a problem throughout the progressive space.”  

Amnesty Australia declined to comment on the issue, but said it was funded and operated separately to Amnesty International.

Pro Bono News also reached out to a number of Australian humanitarian and community organisations, who all declined to comment on the issue.   

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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  • Anonymous says:

    If you’re having a spike of staff turnover, the Board needs to be asking the CEO some hard questions about culture and checking in with staff. The culture of fear of blacklisting is so strong that I doubt too many commenters would even be willing to give their real names.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’ve just finished working in an organisation with such toxic management that four people left in just over the five months I was there, and a number of people left prior to my starting. Specialist consultants have been engaged at great cost, feedback has been collected, yet I doubt change will occur. How come the board are not actioning this? Probably because management have covered up the high change over of staff before now. It will be interesting to see if this can continue to be covered up now that the consultant costs have had to be approved by board and they will hopefully be demanding to see action. It really comes down to the value organisations put on their staff especially when most are employed dependent on funding.

  • Kate Lawrence says:

    It is within the nature of hierarchy itself, to breed this kind of culture. I’d recommend any people interested in this area (and we all should be) to read the book ‘Reinventing Organisations’ by Frederic Laloux. It is totally inspiring and changing organisations all over the world.

  • Anonymous says:

    This is an important review and the Australian NFP sector needs to heed the warnings. Having worked in the NFP sector for 5 years it seems to me that the executive and management of some NFPs operate on squeezing as much as possible from their workers, taking advantage of the goodwill of their workers. I have also found that the rhetoric and increasing focus on raising profile and marketing is often at the expense of their core work and often contradicts the values that the organisations claims to have.

    • Leanne says:

      The comment from Anonymous on 14 Feb is the pressure I felt while working for a not-for-profit association for visually impaired in WA. When being interviewed for job, they asked questions to determine your humanitarian attitude, and then selected those applicants who were the most humanitarian…then they expect all of their employees to do extra unpaid work for the organisation.

    • recycle says:

      I agree with these comments. Saw appalling treatment of lower level volunteers from Managers, paid and unpaid in Tassie at time of Franklin River and Logging disputes. Bullying also occurred with businesses who may have supported at sometime, being pressured to do so again, even if they clearly did not want to or were not in a financial position to do so.

      Nowdays you see the public being bullied and harrassed by chuggers. An extension of bullying management who dreamt up a fund raising system the public hates.

  • Anon says:

    The reliance goodwill is endemic to the sector, and often evolves into outright exploitation. You also may actually have low staff turnover, and so not see a problem ‘by the numbers’ on that simple base metric given that a majority of people working for a given organisation align closely with its values and mission, it can feel like a betrayal (of the organisation, the beneficiaries and one’s own personal values and morals) to even speak up, let alone leave.

    Working most of my career in the sector I have seen people struggling with this time and again, often staying for years as they suffer through all the symptoms of such a workplace (stress, depression, relationship issues, health issues, career stagnation etc.) solely due to their values and goodwill being exploited. The very organisations you would expect to have the most care and compassion can, and do, end up being some of the worst for their employees. I have personally seen, across a number of organisations, an entire workforces barely holding together. Regular 80+ hour weeks (no overtime) for pay 30-40% below standard for similar positions in the private sector, even factoring out this free labour, (the common understanding that you should expect this in the sector is something else I don’t agree with, more exploitation of values and goodwill). In some cases employees are in open despair but remaining under such conditions for 5-10 years as they ‘can’t do that to the beneficiaries’ or ‘I love what I do, I just hate how the organisation ‘ . Without shared values and mutual support, borne of working with similar minded people, a lot wouldn’t get through and it places would have to change. Sadly that base exists and is always readily filled. Hearing that there have been suicides in Amnesty does not surprise me, I’m only surprised the worst I have encountered is ‘burn out’ and people breaking down and leaving the sector.

    No solutions here, just observations. Changing organisational culture is a mammoth task, changing a sector is nigh on impossible.

  • Anon says:

    There’s possibly a different story here about AI Australia which suffers from a clash of values between fundraisers & communications staff and human rights advocates. It seems they loose staff in the latter category on a regular basis. It means that other organisations have had more human rights impact over the past decade than AI – whilst AI has the budget.

  • Ex-Amnesty Australia Leader says:

    I was an active senior member of Amnesty Australia for many years, and finally left the workplace due to extremely toxic behaviour from the managers. There was bullying and lack of accountability (not to mention misuse of resources) were endemic from the board and branch committees and that attitude was perpetuated by the managers towards others. There was a lot of talk and buzz words being used but little action on anything. It was especially ironic that a human rights organisation would be staffed by people who thought themselves martyrs and were pious towards others.


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