Case 076 - Voluntary Sector

We are a medium sized voluntary sector agency with 20 staff of differing cultures. I am the Director and was overworked, handling seven different contract requirements, undertaking innovative work, therapy, with a very demanding client group, substance misusers,  drawn from a number of different nationalities. The agency had a high reputation for innovation and creativity but typical old style voluntary sector (non) infrastructure support and an office which is a mess of papers.

The Chair recognised the strain on me and suggested we appoint an Operations Manager. Finding it difficult to recruit, he put forward someone he knew. At first she seemed to be the ideal candidate, well connected in the local borough, sitting on many local committees, well presented and seemingly knowledgeable about the difficulties ethnic minority people face, being one herself.

Within two weeks of starting she had seized on a letter from the auditor to myself, asking us to reform our petty cash systems as evidence of something greatly amiss. Had my management of 10 years been so misguided, I began to doubt myself? The letter was duly presented to the Trustees by her - as evidence for reform. Coward as I was, I failed to stand up for the Finance Worker who went under a trumped-up cloud of financial irregularities. Fool as I was I began to see around me, in the name of change, the painful disassembly of an agency built up over fourteen years.

Post, emails, phone calls all became re-routed, finding myself pleasantly with little to do, I relaxed. In came new computers and desks for the staff, I began to appear inept in comparison, before it was make-do. Due to the financial cloud where word had spread quickly, she began to restore our reputation suddenly money appeared she had raised so she told me. Bank details became rerouted under the wing of her new financial workers, creating new systems. In enhancing this Meetings and appointments all became routed to the Operations Manager.

One by one the old staff members fell ill, the culture of the office shifted to gossip and trivia. Secret meetings were held with new staff members and new staff contracts, equal opps, health and safety policies were all devised without the knowledge of the Trustees or old staff members. New people's salaries were raised, pay-offs given for extra services and the special bond(age) between the Chair and the Operations Manager became the main topic of office gossip. Every attempt to unwind what was happening hit the stone wall of "The Chair said". Every attempt to talk about the core business or therapy with abused people produced a dash to take an urgent phone call. I remember her eyes glazing over as we spoke of the clients personal histories in sessions I asked her to attend so she could understand the work.

The crunch came when she went on holiday, to find a cure for a life-threatening illness. I felt bewildered between sympathy and a big uneasy feeling overwhelming my body, that something was just not right. It was then after seven months the level of devastation finally revealed itself. The Admin worker, an elderly gent who was seemingly engaged in his own sadomasochistic relationship with the O.M. revealed she telephoned him nearly every day from the South of France on our works mobile, wanting to know what was happening in the Office. He described her affectionately as a control freak, although she treated him little better than a pet dog, spraying him with room freshener in the office to disguise his odour problem.

I had trouble initially talking to the staff about what I was feeling, they were satiated by the new desks, computers, promise of more money and holidays, and they felt sorry for her, she was dying. Although she possessed a demonic energy for attending committees, holding telephone conversations and having staff meetings, she would confide in particular with staff who had recently suffered a bereavement, who were coping with illness or who had illness in the family. "How are you today, you're not looking yourself"", completely disarmed the vulnerable staff who began relating their problems to someone who cared, whereas I had had little time for personal support. The difference however was that she who would store the information, twist and then use it against them - "Did you know so and so is a prostitute?" She became in effect an anti-therapist, a catalyst of gossip.

The crunch came when I found a racist email the elderly gent had sent his mistress, aimed at another ethnic minority. This allowed him to vent his spleen to his mistress, a former high official in the local Race Equality, who referred to people of colour as "those people"

I found the email by chance after, saving his work to file, up popped Equal Opps which was in effect an epilogue to Mein Kampf. When asked to account for his actions the elderly gent resigned. The Chair was rocked, claiming the elderly gent had a democratic right to free speech, and the Mistresses main concern, telephoning me from holiday was who he had sent it to, and if he had written it by himself.

I did a computer check and as I thought it had been sent to her. This was akin to janitor seeing a light on in Watergate, what began to unravel was a web that I had hoped was not there, but knew it was. It took a great deal of patient work, with members of the Trustees to piece together what she had done. We went though a torturous grievance process, where her story shifted according to whom she was either trying to bully or cajole. A number of other serious issues emerged, the main one being we were nearly bankrupt. She had spent all our reserves on currying favouritism, no money had been recouped from funders, bank overdrafts arranged without anyone knowing. Health and Safety had been breached, she had reserved it for herself as had the Grievance Procedure. She had apparently provided money to a former old employee to write a letter to the Chair, with vague accusations of sexual harassment, aimed at me which he failed to pass on to the other Trustees. She had decided to write up contracts which gave her the power of dismissal and investigation, in fact usurped the role of management committee and Director. She had also put in place extensive surveillance equipment, spying on staff computers and disclosing confidential client details. The Chair left the day I suspended her, citing he had not been involved in the decision to suspend her.

We have slowly begun to heal ourselves, although she fired a missile at our funders, stating we were fraudsters, involving another set of dynamics with one or two people who have no empathy with the vulnerable, using it to attack us. Afterwards I spoke with the old staff members, what happened there, what went wrong, it was like something from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", all our systems of trust and loyalty collapsed.

Interesting she went off to another voluntary project, helping elderly Muslims enter care - ahhhhhh.

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