Ex-Save the Children boss Justin Forsyth apologises over texts

Justin ForsythImage copyrightSave the Children

A former chief executive of Save the Children faced three complaints of inappropriate behaviour towards female staff before leaving the charity, the BBC has learned.

Justin Forsyth was accused of sending inappropriate texts and commenting on what young female staff were wearing.

Mr Forsyth said he had “apologised unreservedly” to the three workers.

Ex-Save the Children boss Justin Forsyth apologises over texts
Ex-Save the Children boss Justin Forsyth apologises over texts

It comes as Oxfam and Save the Children have separately been quizzed by MPs about sexual misconduct by workers.

Although not accused of sexual misconduct, Mr Forsyth said he had “unsuitable and thoughtless conversations” with staff and thought the issue had been closed “many years ago”.

The concerns were handled through a process of mediation and no formal complaints were made, he added.

Mr Forsyth is currently deputy executive director at Unicef.

Save the Children said it had commissioned “a root and branch review of the organisational culture” at the charity “addressing any behavioural challenges among senior leadership”.

A Unicef spokesman said: “We welcome Mr Forsyth’s decision to come forward and acknowledge past mistakes.

“We are discussing this matter with Mr Forsyth and his former employer so we can take appropriate action.”

‘Exposed to bravado’

An investigation by BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, found the complaints included women receiving a series of inappropriate texts from Mr Forsyth, and commenting on how they looked, what they were wearing and how he felt about them.

If they did not respond, Mr Forsyth would follow-up messages with an email, asking if they had seen the text.

If they still did not respond, he would ask someone to send them to him for a quick word.

A woman who complained at the time said the longer she was at the charity the more she was exposed to “some of the bravado”.

“That is both at head office and in the field,” she said.

“Other women tell you to watch out for certain senior people. You start to hear rumours about some of the directors but of course until it happens to you – which it did – you don’t really appreciate how hard it is to deal with.”

She said it did not seem the complaints were being treated with the “appropriate degree of seriousness” and it was “troubling” that the then chairman of the charity’s board of trustees, Sir Alan Parker, became involved. Sir Alan is the founder of the PR firm Brunswick.

Image copyrightSave the Children
Image caption Justin Forsyth with Samantha Cameron in Lebanon

Another former employee of Save The Children told the BBC: “The centre of this crisis was not in Haiti or Chad. It was in London.

“Young professional women at Save the Children felt unsafe. They felt that their careers could depend on ensuring they responded to unwanted attention and to bullying.”

‘Matters closed’

Save The Children said concerns were raised about “inappropriate behaviour and comments” by Mr Forsyth 2015.

It said two trustees carried out separate investigations into a total of three complaints made by female employees.

“Both reviews resulted in unreserved apologies from the CEO. All the parties agreed to this and the former CEO apologised to the women in question. At that time the matters were closed.”

In a statement, Mr Forsyth said he had made “some personal mistakes during my time at Save the Children”.

“I recognise that on a few occasions I had unsuitable and thoughtless conversations with colleagues, which I now know caused offence and hurt.

“When this was brought to my attention on two separate occasions, I apologised unreservedly to the three colleagues involved.

“My apologies were accepted and I had thought the issue closed many years ago.”

‘Uncomfortable’ atmosphere

The allegations come after Brendan Cox – the husband of murdered MP Jo Cox – quit two charities he set up in memory of his wife amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

Responding to the allegations, Mr Cox said he “made mistakes” during his time at Save the Children.

Speaking to PM, Brie O’Keefe – who worked for Mr Cox between 2011 and 2013 – told PM there was an “uncomfortable” atmosphere at the charity.

“I feel like the people who tried to speak directly to their line managers were put down, were told ‘that’s just the way Brendan is, don’t worry about it’.”

On Sunday, Kevin Watkins, the current chief executive of Save the Children, confirmed he had commissioned a review of the organisational culture at the charity.

The review will report back in June 2018.

“We apologise for any pain these matters have caused and sincerely hope that complainants feel able to help us with the review in coming weeks,” a spokesman for the charity said.

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