Courage in the workplace: leadership essential to prevent and tackle abuse

The importance of leadership showing courage in the workplace to prevent abuse has come into focus with the emerging scandal at British Gymnastics, which experience suggests is still in its early stages. It is positive that, as more victims have come forward and external scrutiny increased, the organisation has now pledged to carry out an independent inquiry. However, there will now be a lack of trust in the organisation despite the investigation’s outcome due to lack of early action, support for gymnasts raising concerns, and transparency.

In similar cases, the media has continued to dig deep and find more revelations. Regulators stepped in. Leadership pledged to do the right thing then stepped down under pressure for ‘something to be done’. None of this helps the victims.  None of this is inevitable.

Courageous leadership plays a vital role in preventing and addressing workplace abuse, creating a safe and inclusive environment for employees to thrive. By understanding the significance of courageous leadership, HR professionals can better equip themselves to promote a culture of respect, dignity, and empathy within their organizations.

Understanding workplace abuse

Before delving into the role of courage in the workplace and the role of leadership in preventing and addressing workplace abuse, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of what constitutes such abuse. Workplace abuse refers to any form of mistreatment, harassment, bullying, or discrimination that an employee may experience in their professional setting. This can include verbal, physical, or emotional abuse, as well as sexual harassment, intimidation, or exclusion.

Workplace abuse not only negatively affects individual employees but also has wider implications for the overall organisational health and productivity. It can lead to decreased job satisfaction, increased stress levels, decreased morale, and higher turnover rates. In extreme cases, workplace abuse can even result in legal repercussions and damage to the organisation’s reputation.

The importance of courage in the workplace

Courageous leadership is essential in preventing and addressing workplace abuse because it sets the tone for the entire organization. Leaders who possess courage are more likely to take a stand against abusive behaviour and create a culture where such behaviour is not tolerated. They demonstrate a commitment to fairness, inclusion, and respect, promoting an environment where employees feel safe to speak up and report instances of abuse.

Courageous leaders also play a crucial role in addressing workplace abuse when it does occur. They are willing to confront the abuser, support and protect the victim, and take appropriate action to address the issue. This sends a powerful message to both the victim and the rest of the organization that abuse will not be tolerated, and the leadership is dedicated to creating a safe and respectful workplace.

Moreover, courageous leadership helps to prevent workplace abuse by establishing clear policies and procedures that explicitly address and condemn abusive behaviour. These leaders actively promote and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for workplace abuse, ensuring that employees are aware of the consequences of their actions and that there is a system in place to address any instances of abuse. This proactive approach helps to create a culture of accountability and discourages potential abusers from engaging in abusive behaviour in the first place.

In addition, courageous leaders create an environment where open communication is encouraged and valued. They actively listen to their employees, provide opportunities for feedback, and create channels for reporting abuse without fear of retaliation. By fostering a culture of open communication, leaders can ensure that instances of abuse are brought to their attention promptly, allowing for timely intervention and resolution.

The Impact of Courageous Leadership on Employee Well-being

Courageous leadership has a direct impact on employee well-being. When leaders have the courage to address and prevent workplace abuse, they create an environment where employees feel supported, valued, and safe. This, in turn, has positive effects on employee morale, job satisfaction, and overall mental health.

Employees who feel safe and respected are more likely to be engaged and motivated in their work, leading to increased productivity and performance. They are also more likely to remain loyal to the organisation, reducing turnover rates and the associated costs of recruitment and training. By prioritising employee well-being through courageous leadership, organisations can create a positive work culture that attracts and retains top talent.

Furthermore, when leadership show courage in the workplace to address workplace abuse it demonstrates a commitment to ethical values and social responsibility. It shows that the organisation stands against any form of mistreatment and is dedicated to creating a fair and inclusive workplace for all employees. This can enhance the organisation’s reputation and attract potential employees who prioritise a safe and respectful work environment.

Identifying weak signals

As our work, and that of other independent investigators has shown time and time again, there are common elements to all organisation-based abuse scandals, even if the type, scale and sectors differ. One element is the willingness of leadership to show courage to act even on weak signals of potential abuse or worrying patterns of behaviour in the workplace. This means having the courage to explore and interrogate workplace concerns, and not ignoring them or protecting potential abusers in prominent positions because ‘it is in the best interests of all involved’. In 2017, The Observer highlighted our work which identified types of behaviour that had allowed NHS doctors to significantly harm their patients.

These behaviour types are just as relevant in sport and other organisations. For example, the “superhero status” often given to senior staff or experts in their field means unusual or worrying behaviour goes unchallenged by colleagues, clients, students or patients. There are also ‘lone wolves’ who create opportunities to carve out time alone with vulnerable individuals or those less empowered to speak up. These patterns are easily applied to important roles in other sectors, such as high-earning executives, life-changing clinicians, and the recent football coach and overseas charity abuse cases.

A second element is the belief that once an issue cannot be ignored, it is best investigated and dealt with ‘inside the family’. This approach may be driven by a misguided plan to protect those involved, reduce reputational risk, or because only someone who understands the business can get to the bottom of the problem. An in-house lawyer or ex-member of the Board, however well-meaning, do not have the skills or independence needed. Nor will they have the trust of the victims, their families or external scrutineers.

The third element is the ability to learn from other cases, to proactively own an organisation’s safeguarding policies, to act appropriately and be transparent about it. It is essential that leaders demonstrate courage in the workplace to prevent and tackle abuse. Independent and expert scrutiny is vital for victims and families of serious harm or abuse to move on.


If you would like more information on the need for courage in the workplace to prevent and tackle abuse, please book a free consultation or contact Ed Marsden on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].


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