• pam loch
  • 7 March 2018

The Oxfam case: HR measures that should have been in place

Oxfam has hit the headlines in recent weeks following allegations of staff hiring prostitutes while working overseas. Since then, the story has continued to develop, with the Charity Commission launching a statutory inquiry – the most serious action it can take. Oxfam, which has nearly 10,000 staff working in more than 90 countries, denies any cover-up.

Background to the allegations

The scandal originated following a report in The Times, which alleged Oxfam covered up claims that senior staff working in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake used prostitutes, some of whom may have been underage. Among the staff accused of sexual misconduct is Oxfam's then-Director of Operations in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren.

Oxfam denies claims of a cover-up. It says the behaviour of its staff was "totally unacceptable" and after uncovering the accusations in 2011, the charity launched an internal investigation. According to Oxfam's own 2011 report, four members of staff were dismissed and three were allowed to resign before the end of the investigation. The Charity Commission says it was not given full details about the use of prostitutes by aid workers and that it would have acted differently if it had known all the facts.

The reports have resulted in the resignation of Oxfam's Deputy Chief Executive, Penny Lawrence, who said she “takes full responsibility”. Oxfam has now agreed to stop bidding for UK government funding until it can show it meets the "high standards" required.

What can organisations learn from this?

Whilst the details of these allegations are shocking to many, they are perhaps more prominent in the wake of the #TimesUp movement in the media. It also emphasises the need for organisations to ensure they conduct robust disciplinary investigations into any allegations of gross misconduct and take appropriate action.

Employers should have clear policies that set out the standards of conduct their employees are expected to uphold, both in or out of the workplace. As the Oxfam case shows, the behaviour of staff outside working hours can still impact on an employer’s reputation. Where public money and funding is concerned, there may well be higher standards expected as well. 

It is crucial that employers take all allegations of sexual harassment or similar misconduct seriously and take time to investigate the claims thoroughly and impartially – regardless of the seniority of those involved. The reports of an internal cover-up could undermine an organisation’s credibility more than the allegations of the conduct themselves.

Employment status and disciplinary procedures

Although some of the allegations were made against senior Oxfam employees, there are wider concerns that the charity’s aid workers abroad have also been exploiting vulnerable locals. Employers should be clear that workers and employees can be disciplined and that volunteers should be operating to the same standards and codes of conduct too. When engaging any workers to perform services, an organisation should make it clear in their terms that they will be required to follow the organisation’s processes and conduct requirements.

Some foreign aid charities engage expat charity workers to perform services, usually under UK terms. However, if a charity employs local staff or engages local workers, and they live and work in that country full time, there may be a requirement for those staff members to be engaged on local terms and conditions. Again, it’s important to think about how the organisation can ensure those workers operate to the same conduct standards. 

What about staff moving to other employers?

Some of the workers involved in the allegations have subsequently moved on to other third sector roles, which raises the question about references during the recruitment process.

An employer does not have to give a reference but if they do it should be true, fair and accurate if the reference is more than a factual reference. A new employer could claim damages for negligence against an organisation if a glowing reference does not reflect the true position in relation to their employment with the organisation. To minimise this risk, the current best practice guidance in employment law is to only give a factual reference stating dates of employment, job title and salary.

There are no regulatory obligations on charities, or other businesses, to disclose the misbehaviour of former employees. However, in the wake of the Oxfam scandal, several high-profile organisations have come together to state that a new process should be implemented, similar to regulated businesses in the financial sector, where a full ‘warts and all’ reference is required for all senior workers. Whether this will happen remains to be seen. 

However, if a foreign aid organisation chooses to engage aid workers, it is vital that all staff understand the standards of behaviour that are expected throughout the organisation, regardless of position, worker status or nationality. This applies to all organisations across the public, private and third sectors. Clear policies on conduct, disciplinary action, anti-corruption and bribery are a necessity for any organisation, and an impartial process for reporting and investigating allegations of misbehaviour is crucial to maintaining the trust of employees, donors, investors and the general public. 


Pam Loch is Managing Partner of Loch Employment Law, and Managing Director of the Loch Associates Group,