The importance of courageous leadership to prevent abuse in the workplace 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.
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.