Safeguarding in humanitarian organisations: a practical look at response

July 19, 2018
Kelsey Hoppe and Christine Williamson

In part one of this two-part article, Kelsey Hoppe, CEO of Safer Edge, a UK-based security risk advisory company, and Christine Williamson, director and founder of Duty of Care International and an HR and duty of care specialist, discussed the prevention side of safeguarding. In this article, they continue their discussion with a look at safeguarding responses.

For the purposes of this article, ‘safeguarding’ is defined as all actions taken by organisations to protect their personnel from harm and to prevent them from harming others. This is expanded from the UK legal definition of safeguarding, which only applies to children and vulnerable adults. Safeguarding procedures and activities relate to harassment and abuse (including sexual harassment, abuse and violence).

KH: In discussing prevention, we looked at several practical steps organisations can take to make safeguarding part of their regular practice. What good practices have you seen in relation to response?

CW: Organisations with good safeguarding practice  take staff engagement seriously, and have made it continuous and built it into their systems. These are things like asking safeguarding questions in staff engagement surveys, conducting focus groups with staff and managers, relaunching the safeguarding policy or using staff meetings to talk about safeguarding and what the organisation is doing.

KH: When I was a senior manager in aid organisations I was asked to ‘investigate’ all sorts of things – fraud, misconduct, sexual harassment – but I was never given any training in how to do it. At best, there were one or two pages in a handbook under the heading: ‘how to conduct an investigation’. Do you think this is commonplace?

CW: Sadly, yes. Grievance or disciplinary procedures tend to be the main reference point for those managing investigations. It’s important to have investigative procedures which are adequate for all types of misconduct including serious violations, managed by staff trained in their use. Trained staff will respond to a complaint in an appropriate way, and decide whether there is any immediate risk in the workplace to the complainant and alleged perpetrator following a complaint. Depending on the nature of the complaint, the alleged perpetrator could be suspended from duties with pay while the formal investigation takes place.

Investigations can be a very complex and  sensitive process, and can take some time. They usually take place following a complaint or through the discovery of information, and after the harm has been done. Organisations with good investigative capability should look for signs of harm and prevent it – or disrupt it – meaning that investigation is both part of prevention and response. This is rarely the case though.

KH: This highlights the single point of failure in most safeguarding practice: the reporting. If misconduct isn’t reported, the organisation doesn’t know it’s happening. We know that victims of abuse are often traumatised, ashamed, coerced into silence or don’t trust reporting mechanisms. How can organisations avoid placing all the responsibility for taking action against harm on the victim?

CW: Instead of relying on reporting mechanisms alone, organisations need to proactively look for and prevent harm or threats. This can be done by analysing information already available to you. As one example, you may have information gained through exit interviews or debriefs of people leaving a country office at the end of their contracts. The individual leaving might mention in passing the unusual behaviour of another colleague or express concern for them. To corroborate this concern, you could conduct an investigation by researching relevant data. Triggers could be higher absence rates or turnover in the team, employee relations issues or increased complaints in the team, or data from a staff survey or 360-degree feedback that reveals concerns. This desk investigation may then lead to confidential interviews, which in turn might uncover signs of risk – such as possible corruption or abuse – prompting a full investigation.

We know anecdotally that harm is happening, but is not being uncovered. Organisations need to identify and investigate possible threats and be able to adopt the professional methods this requires. It is imperative to have staff in-house who are trained to investigate and know the process for both discovering and responding to specific, serious reports and violations. Organisations wanting to improve their safeguarding practices may find that they need to set up a safeguarding unit to deal with the initial upsurge in reporting.

KH: In addition to proactively discovering risk, receiving and then responding to complaints or allegations of abuse or harassment is important. How can organisations create reporting systems that employees trust?

CW: People are more likely to trust a reporting process that is well-known, well-designed and well-managed. They are more likely to feel safe raising concerns confidentially or anonymously. It is important that employees know how the organisation receives reports, what it does with them and what the complainant can expect, either in the way of anonymity or support. There needs to be trust in the whole safeguarding process. If employees trust the way the organisation is preventing and removing the risk of harm, they are more likely to trust it  with the handling of their complaint.

There is some evidence that people don’t trust reporting systems because they don’t see visible consequences, e.g. prosecutions. While prosecution is a good outcome, the bar to a successful prosecution is very high and staff can become disillusioned when it appears perpetrators of harm aren’t punished. But looked at another way, if the harm is disrupted and stopped through reporting this is a success. This is principally about staff having a better understanding of what reporting is there for: to stop harm.

KH: In setting up this system, should organisations consider using staff who are dedicated to safeguarding, or is it possible to include or add safeguarding duties to the responsibilities of existing staff?

CW: This will depend on the size and scope of the organisation and whether existing staff have the competencies for managing safeguarding processes. The line manager or an HR representative is often the channel or reporting mechanism that employees are encouraged to use when raising a concern or complaint. On issues of safeguarding, is the organisation training and equipping managers and HR to handle this kind of information? Do they know what to do next? What is appropriate or not appropriate to say or do? Anyone with responsibility for handling complaints or safeguarding reports needs to have the competencies to respond to complaints, manage investigations and prepare sensitive reports in a professional, ethical and legal way.

I would argue that a more suitable system would be one that allows staff to raise safeguarding complaints directly with a dedicated and specially trained focal point or unit – separate from line management. This encourages staff to report and adds the reassurance of confidentiality. Having focal points for dealing with safeguarding issues would demonstrate how seriously the organisation is taking the eradication of harassment and the protection of their staff.

KH: What’s the difference between making a complaint or safeguarding report and whistle-blowing? Are these different processes?

CW: A whistle-blowing mechanism is the means by which an employee can make a complaint or report anonymously. This mechanism can be used for the identification of issues beyond safeguarding, like reporting fraud, bribery, criminal activity, a cover-up or other issues that endanger employee health and welfare. This shouldn’t be confused with whistle-blowing law which, in the UK, doesn’t cover bullying, harassment and discrimination. Whistle-blowing mechanisms often take the form of a helpline or email. What’s important, as with any mechanism for raising concerns, is that the whistle-blowing procedure is well-known and its use encouraged. The mechanism must be supported and managed by staff who are trained in how to collect and analyse information, and have the ability and authority to respond and lead investigations on behalf of the organisation in an appropriate way.

KH: Often, perpetrators of harassment or abuse will leave an organisation before they can be dismissed. How can aid agencies act responsibly in these cases and prevent perpetrators from moving on to other organisations?

CW: Allegations of harassment can sometimes be difficult to prove, and this is one of the key reasons why there is under-reporting (or no reporting) on this issue – complainants don’t want to go through the stress of an investigation if they believe nothing will happen to the perpetrator. To resolve the problem of a difficult investigation and process, organisations sometimes use Compromise Agreements to dismiss the alleged perpetrator. These agreements usually include a satisfactory reference and confidentiality clause which prevents either party from discussing the allegation or incident. Such agreements, however, allow perpetrators to move freely to other agencies and cause further harm. My strong advice here is for organisations to have a very clear policy for dealing with safeguarding issues, and be disciplined in responding to and investigating complaints to ensure that everything possible is done to prove or disprove allegations of misconduct. If allegations are proved, the formal investigation and hearing will ensure the facts and sanctions are documented and included in the perpetrator’s personnel file. Should the perpetrator be dismissed, the reason for leaving can be provided in a future reference, preventing harm being passed on to the next organisation.

KH: Investigations into safeguarding issues tend to be highly sensitive. How can organisations respect the need for confidentiality when collecting and handling this type of information?

CW: While those who have suffered harassment or abuse should be protected and confidentiality upheld, information – even sensitive information – will need to be shared with the appropriate people. Employees should be aware of this so that, before they report a safeguarding issue, they know how data and sensitive information related to them and others involved will be handled. I have seen cases where managers have known about situations but taken no further action because of what they understand confidentiality to mean. This is where having fully trained and dedicated staff to support safeguarding complaints is important. When staff are trained they can ensure that the response is professional and robust, and information is sensitively and correctly handled. They can also follow good data management principles, Examples of good data management principles are included in the UK guidance on EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): while ensuring that the complainant feels safe and receives the right support and guidance to make good, informed choices.

KH: One question we’re often asked about investigations is when does the organisation need to report cases to the police or other external bodies such as donors or regulators? If information comes to light which suggests there has been criminal activity, when, and who, is the organisation obligated to tell?

CW: In most countries, some instances of harassment and all instances of abuse, including sexual violence, are considered criminal acts and should be reported to the police. An organisation that does not report criminal activity could be held to account by the local criminal justice system. Ideally, the organisation should continue to conduct a parallel investigation into misconduct while the police carry out their own investigation.

Obviously, there are issues with this. Complainants may be reluctant to report abuse to local authorities as they don’t trust or know the local legal system.  Where the act involves sexual violence, it is possible in some countries for criminal charges to be brought against the complainant. This issue is a very serious one and should be considered when the organisation is developing its risk management framework and processes when beginning work or operating in a new location. It’s important to remember that any investigation into sexual harassment and violence should as much as possible be led by the informed choices of the affected individual. The complainant should be guided on and informed of any risk to their safety and wellbeing if they have decided to report a case to the local authorities. They should also know what support they’ll receive from the organisation during a police investigation.

In cases where UK citizens have engaged in serious criminal activity overseas (regardless of the nationality of the victim) the National Crime Agency should be informed.

The UK Charity Commission requires UK charities to report serious incidents, including related to safeguarding (the definition of a ‘serious incident’ and how to report one are here). With donors and other external partners, there’s usually no legal obligation to report unless it is in a contract. That might be changing and is something organisations should consider and decide how they will handle when setting up their investigations system.

KH: Given that most organisations’ safeguarding practice is reliant on reporting, how can organisations provide adequate support to individuals after a report has been made?

CW: Assuming it is the complainant who experienced the misconduct or abuse, then supporting them – from the moment they report, throughout the investigation and after a decision has been reached – is one of the most important things the organisation can do. The effects of abuse or harassment can leave someone feeling powerless, fearful and potentially traumatised. Mismanagement of the case, poor communication and a lack of support are likely to lead to further trauma, and make the incident or situation even more difficult to overcome. I know of cases where the complainant has not been supported while an investigation was taking place and, following a hearing, there was no follow-up from HR or the manager. The organisational process kicks in and the person who has suffered harm and their needs can be forgotten. We have to remember that this individual has just taken a courageous step, and that people react differently to traumatic situations and may therefore respond to different types of support. Options for supporting complainants during an internal or criminal investigation could include:

  • Access to appropriate, pre-identified medical professionals for physical and psychosocial health – ideally covered by the organisation’s insurance provider. Psychosocial support could be needed for some time, even after the individual has left the organisation. To support victims of trauma of any kind, organisations should consider a longer-term solution to psychosocial support – one where unlimited support is provided over a longer period, rather than limiting the number of counselling sessions, which is entirely inadequate for critical incidents and trauma cases.
  • Practical employment support during the investigation could involve HR support in communicating with other staff around the complainant’s absence from work, to the police (where legal support may be required) and communication and reassurance throughout the formal process. Returning to work may require adjustments to the responsibilities of the role or a phased return. Whatever support is given, the individual needs to be a priority, and thought needs to be given to how different people and processes will support the individual and their return to work while an investigation may be ongoing.
  • Access to a coach or mentor to help the individual restore personal resilience and confidence and enable them to return to work.
  • Access to further training in areas like psychological first aid, which support ways of managing resilience in traumatic situations.

KH: We’ve been mainly discussing response within a single organisation. What should an organisation do if they receive allegations against an employee from another organisation, or if an employee makes a complaint against someone working for another organisation?

CW: Having a robust reporting mechanism means that an organisation’s system should be able to receive, and act on, complaints from outside the organisation, or allow employees to make complaints about others outside their own organisation. Having a confidential email, phone number or link on a website are examples of ways others outside the organisation can report. In cases of reports about an individual from another organisation, management will need to liaise and work with that organisation in the response. Ideally, the other organisation will also have robust safeguarding practices. If not, then the organisation needs to support and protect the complainant to the greatest degree it can.

KH: In these two conversations, we have only had time to briefly outline why robust safeguarding is critical, and what practical steps organisations should consider when implementing safeguarding. Where can organisations go to learn more about safeguarding systems and procedures and how to implement them effectively?

CW: The UK Charity Commission, the regulator for charities involved in international development, has provided a number of links on its website to relevant information and resources, including a strategy for safeguarding. The Department for International Development (DFID) has also issued a number of statements and will be holding a Safeguarding Summit in the autumn. Safer Edge has further information on how organisations can use discovery and investigations to get ahead of all their safeguarding risks. The CHS Alliance has a course on responding to sexual exploitation and abuse. Duty of Care International provides articles on its website and develops and delivers safeguarding policy and practice and learning modules for all types of organisations.

Kelsey Hoppe is the CEO of Safer Edge, a UK-based security risk advisory company. Christine Williamson is the Director and founder of Duty of Care International and an HR and duty of care specialist.


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