A review of Amnesty International’s “toxic” work culture has led to five bosses resigning

The writing on the wall.
The writing on the wall.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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Five members of Amnesty International’s leadership team are on their way out, following a damning report about what’s been described as the human-rights organization’s “toxic” culture.

After two employees died by suicide last year, Amnesty launched a wide-ranging examination of its workplace culture, conducted by three different parties who worked independently from one another. The KonTerra Group, a private consulting firm that performed one of the reviews, relied on hundreds of interviews, surveys, and shared documents to tell the tale of what an Amnesty staffer quoted in the report described as “a toxic culture of secrecy and mistrust,” in which 39% of staff said they had developed mental or physical health issues as the direct result of working there.

Some 475 employees were surveyed for the review, with a total of more than 100 hours of interviews. The review, published in February, noted that staff were mainly miserable not because of the global human rights abuses they confronted professionally each day, but because of the climate in which they were working. 

Senior management has now taken responsibility, with all seven senior leaders offering to resign. As the BBC reports, five have already gone or are in the process of leaving, having taken severance payments some described as “generous.” (Around 100 other staff members are also set to lose their jobs due to financial difficulties.)

In a statement, Amnesty’s secretary general, Kumi Naidoo, called the report a “difficult read,” and made a commitment to “accelerate and widen our efforts to establish credible and effective wellbeing measures and find better ways to recognize the tremendous dedication of staff to our mission.” There was, he wrote, “a deep deficit in our duty of care and support to staff,” which could not simply be explained away by the organization’s “complexities.” With staff wellbeing now an absolute priority, he would be commissioning Deloitte to help management deliver on the recommendations of the review.

What led to the review

Working for Amnesty International might be expected to be stressful—the organization has an ambitious human rights mission that involves tracking trauma and abuse around the world. There is often more to cover than even the most talented staff could hope to achieve, across issues including the climate crisis, torture, and international justice.

In May 2018, a longtime Amnesty staff member, Gaëtan Mootoo, died by suicide in his office at Amnesty’s Paris bureau. According to KonTerra’s report, he left a note that “among other things, made it clear that work pressures played a major part in his decision to end his life.” Six weeks later, an Amnesty intern, Rosalind McGregor, died by suicide at her family’s home in London. Though there is no evidence that her work played a role in what happened, both of these sudden deaths served as the impetus to dig deeper into what staff were experiencing.

In fact, as the review notes, staff had been experiencing stress for decades. As early as the 1990s, Amnesty’s work culture was being described as “adversarial” and “toxic,” with a climate characterized by a “lack of trust” and bullying.”

Circumstances seem to have gone from bad to worse when Amnesty launched its Global Transition Program (GTP) in 2013. This colossal restructuring led staff members to be directly exposed to “civil unrest and conflict” on the ground, during a period of organizational turmoil. As one staff member told the interviewers, the restructuring made it harder to do work in the field: “A lot of staff left. One result was that we had to hire new local staff members. They generally were unskilled, unexperienced, insufficiently trained, and not ready to face the difficulties of the job.”

The few attempts by managers to step in to support staff were “one-off, reactive, unsystematic and insufficient.” The report concludes: “It seems that Amnesty has largely been operating in a ‘state of emergency’ since the inception of the GTP.”

The review’s findings

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Image: Amnesty International
  • Employees were deeply invested in their work, frequently describing it as something that gave them meaning. They struggled to place healthy boundaries on how much work they were doing and were loath to leave, even when the culture turned toxic. The abundant sense of purpose also created what one interviewee in the review described as a “martyrdom culture” in which it was permitted to sacrifice employee well-being “because of the critical importance of the work.”
  • In a staff survey, the same phrases often surfaced: stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, headaches, insomnia, back problems, panic attacks, and feeling alone. But these problems were more often reported by employees to stem from their working conditions—challenging managers, mistreatment by colleagues, bullying—than from stressful tasks such as interviewing survivors of violence and torture or watching “distressing” footage.
  • Nearly two-thirds of the staff said their wellbeing was not a priority for their managers, while more than half said they did not feel valued by Amnesty leadership.
  • Employee wellbeing efforts, including the allocation of five staff counseling sessions to each employee and the introduction of a peer support network, were found to have been inconsistent and lacking in oversight, with a vast majority of employees either not using the services or not knowing they existed.
  • Interviewees said they felt a sense of personal responsibility to the vulnerable people they were working with, but were limited by how much they could feasibly achieve or take on. Workload pressures, then, felt “inevitable” and “perpetual.”

What the report recommends

KonTerra made six recommendations, to be rolled out over a year.

  1. Build bridges and make employees feel safe and trusted. At every level, staff need access to “focused and expert guidance” to help them manage, and eventually transform, “current divisive dynamics.”
  2. Replace a culture of criticism and blame with development. The review recommends frameworks such as Andy Fleming’s Deliberately Developmental Organization to help rebuild an environment that encourages constant personal development.
  3. Approach staff wellbeing systematically. A Wellbeing Task Force is to be assembled to develop a proactive policy for staff wellbeing, with clear priorities and a plan of attack.
  4. Improve offerings for those under stress. Staffers need more access to counseling and better crisis and critical-incident response protocols, while managers and fellow employees should be educated in how to help those around them.
  5. Help managers support their employees. Managers, the report advises, should be encouraged to put wellbeing first, to make realistic demands in terms of employees’ workloads, to make feedback a common feature of the workplace, and to improve their “relational and communication skills, emotional intelligence, and conflict management skills.”
  6. Review and professionalize People and Organizational Development. This Amnesty department is currently widely mistrusted, the review found, and must be thoroughly reviewed to ensure that it can fulfill its most important duties, including serving as a check on improper or abusive behavior. Amnesty must review its grievance and hiring processes, including prioritizing recruiting managers with strong interpersonal “resilience and relational skills” over those with only technical skills, the report advises.