Public disbelief has greeted reports of a sexual-misconduct scandal at overseas-aid charity Oxfam, with the organisation’s CEO Mark Goldring apologising for incidents that occurred in chad from 2006 and Haiti in 2011.

The outcry over the details, which have been widely reported in the press, has already hit Oxfam’s leadership structure, with Goldring saying in his apology: “I am … greatly saddened by the resignation of Penny Lawrence our deputy director. She is appalled that these events happened on her watch and recognised it was only right to stand down. Penny has dedicated her life to the fight against poverty and is a huge loss to all of us.”

Lawrence’s resignation followed international development secretary Penny Mordaunt’s assertion that, in response to the scandal, Oxfam should show “moral leadership”.

Goldring added: “The coming weeks and months will be among the hardest in Oxfam’s history. Please know that we will learn from this. And please also know that this organisation is still full of amazing, brave, committed staff and volunteers who are making remarkable life-saving, life-changing work happen in desperate situations.”

As part of internal, restorative measures, Goldring pledged that Oxfam would:

  • establish a stronger, independent and confidential whistleblowing line to ensure that it will do all it can to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct from occurring in the first place;
  • strengthen the vetting of staff – including by making safeguarding a mandatory part of the recruitment process for senior leadership positions, and
  • revisit improvements already made and learn additional lessons from the 2011 Haiti incidents.

However, when an organisation such as Oxfam has a high level of complexity – with numerous overseas missions and a host of logistical and political challenges to navigate in the areas where it works – how can it ensure that the moral values that it stands for are represented consistently by all of its staff? What can organisations of this nature do to ensure that those values are telegraphed throughout their entire fabric?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The Oxfam story is starkly indicative of how endemic these abuses of power are – and how they’re not confined to the entertainment industry, or anything remotely glamorous. Abuses of power transcend sector, state, country and continent. Any organisation that wants to operate ethically has the same challenge – and that is to ensure that its supply chain operates to the very highest standards.”

Cooper points out: “it’s interesting to note that when the horsemeat scandal broke, Waitrose didn’t have to worry about whether any of its products contained horsemeat, because of how carefully the firm monitors its business partners.

“Yes, Oxfam is certainly a complicated entity. But to be fair to Oxfam, if anyone has the skills, insights and experience required to navigate those complex relationships, multiple stakeholders, curious local customs and the management of volunteers – a process that, all by itself, is widely recognised as challenging – then they are the people who should be able to do it.”

She adds: “there is no doubt in anyone’s mind about Oxfam’s mission statement – it is entirely clear. Their programme is to eradicate poverty. So they know what they’re about and what they should be doing. It’s a compelling call to action, which should be underpinned by an impeccable moral culture. Any organisation that has similar aspirations to trigger change and improve the quality of people’s lives must take – and enforce – hard, zero-tolerance decisions about certain types of behaviour.”

For further thoughts on integrity and authenticity in leadership, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Oxfam sign courtesy of chrisdorney, via Shutterstock