Will WWF SG's ex-employee's accusations on workplace culture dent its pristine image?

Will WWF SG's ex-employee's accusations on workplace culture dent its pristine image?

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A former junior member of the sustainable finance team at WWF Singapore, has called out the organisation and her former supervisor for bullying in the workplace. According to an article on South China Morning Post (SCMP), the French national said she had suffered emotional abuse during her time at the NGO, from July 2015 to February 2017. She has since left for a job in Australia, but said that was diagnosed with PTSD months later by a doctor in Melbourne who attributed her condition to a persistent pattern of mistreatment by her former boss, which caused her undue emotional harm, the article reported. 

The staff member said she had also raised the issue around bullying during her exit interview. She also added that post her diagnosis by the doctor in Melbourne, she wrote to the HR team at WWF’s head office in Switzerland in May 2018 about the incidents that had transpired. Her request for compensation to cover medical treatment, made in September 2020, was also rejected by WWF, which said that her former boss' actions could not be equated with the organisation and is thus the organisation is not liable for her claims, SCMP reported. The article also said three other employees who worked at WWF SG during the same period also faced similar experiences. Meanwhile, the superior accused was later dismissed for misconduct in January 2020, following a separate investigation sparked by another employee’s complaints.

In response to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, R Raghunathan, CEO of WWF Singapore, who took on the role in April last year according to his LinkedIn, said that the organisation is fully complying with the WWF network policy and takes its duty of care towards current and former employees very seriously. "While we do not comment on individual cases, we wish to highlight that whenever complaints are brought to our attention, we have, as necessary, conducted independent investigations in accordance with our established policy and procedures. In cases where the allegations are substantiated, we have swiftly taken the recommended remedial actions," he added. 

In response to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, TAFEP said it has not received any complaints from members of public about the allegations against WWF Singapore.

According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, while business, government, and media industries across the globe saw an increase in trust overall, nonprofits have had a decrease in trust. However, despite the decline, NGOs are still more trusted more than government and media. Interestingly, businesses are now seen as one of the most trusted institution around the world due to the steps taken in being ethical and competent. In comparison, NGOs, however, are seen as ethical, but less competent.

wwf sg brand trust stats

Meanwhile, WWF which was established in 1961, is one of the leading and most prominent NGO names globally. It works in the field of wilderness preservation and the reduction of human impact on the environment. It currently operates in close to 100 countries and has over five million supporters globally. 

In addition to the organisation's global collective efforts - Earth Hour, Save Tigers in the Wild, and Save our Sharks, among others - WWF has also launched several notable localised campaigns in Singapore. Most recently, it launched the  #WeGotThis earlier this month. #WeGotThis is a youth-led sustainability movement which aims to build a community of youths who are actively engaged to find creative solutions to sustainability issues. Given that consumers today want to stand behind brands and NGOs pushing for notable causes, while also having their own homes in order, MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to industry players on if such an incident will cause a hit on WWF’s pristine image.

Edwin Yeo, General Manager of SPRG said while the incident alone is unlikely to erode WWF’s standing as an NGO, but would have some impact on its employer branding. WWF's cause is built on holding companies accountable and they often ask for transparency. In such a situation, this could very much apply to WWF as well.

“Right now, the narrative all belongs to the victim, and it would be good that they can make public what had actually happened and what action they took. There is always more than one side to the story, and it'd be good to hear theirs if they are to start recovering from this incident,” he said.

Yeo added that NGOs are no different from any organisation in terms of workplace culture. Regardless of whether an organisation is for profit or not, staff welfare must be paramount. As such, the issue at hand isn't so much about whether WWF as an organisation is able to perform to the causes that they stand for, but what the work culture is like within the organisation while fighting for their causes.

As much as one can argue that this was the act of one manager, how the organisation responds to it is reflective of its culture.

“Would this make people trust WWF less, probably not? But it does call into question whether the Singapore branch is a good place to work. From a reputation perspective, the allegations of human rights abuses linked to WWF reported by Buzzfeed were probably more of a hit to its reputation than this incident.”

Tarun Deo, former MD, Singapore and Southeast Asia of GOLIN and currently founder and MD of Progressive Communications, said that acknowledging the problem and making the commitment to do better, is a good first step.

“Clearly the SG office had an issue and WWF, seems to have moved to set things on the road to recovery and is doing some things right. It’s small solace to staff that have clearly been traumatised and deeply affected by the episode but they seem to have acknowledged the problem, removed the manager and are committed to doing better for their employees. So it’s a series of steps in the right direction,” he said.

“It of course remains to be seen that they walk the talk and have put systems in place to see that a repeat of the same issue doesn’t occur,” he added.

Deo added that the issue certainly puts the spotlight on working at NGOs and NGOs must look at their staff protocols as a matter of urgency and need to be sure that they are robust as they certainly don’t want to fall short in terms of the standards they set.

Oliver Budgen, founder and managing director of Bud Communications, said that NGOs in particular may face a more significant reputational fallout as they provide for noble causes. "Given their perception as custodians of good ethical and social responsibility, there is a heightened expectation for NGOs in general to conduct good ethical practices, both inside and out," he added.

Budgen added that the growth of communications over the past two years has played a part in employees becoming much more powerful advocates, and wardens of company culture. In the wake of COVID-19, new ways of working and flexibility means organisations need to prioritise listening to their employees and developing internal communications in line with this shift.

"This incident isn't isolated to one NGO and is a reminder that every organisation - NGO or otherwise - has a responsibility to create a positive culture that supports wellbeing and prevents toxic work culture," he said.

In August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech that TAFEP guidelines would be enshrined into law. According to ST, this move came following concerns of middle-income Singaporeans over competition with work pass holders for jobs and opportunities at work. Formed in 2006, TAFEP is a three-way partnership between the government, NTUC, and the Singapore National Employers Federation; and provides guidelines on fair employment practices.

Separately, TAFEP began investigations on video game developer Ubisoft for claims of workplace discrimination and sexual harassment in August. The allegations against Ubisoft came to light in July when they were reported by video game news site Kotaku, which interviewed more than 20 current and former employees. According to Kotaku, its Singapore operations experienced issues such as sexual harassment, bullying by managers and racial pay disparities. TAFEP's spokesperson told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that it received anonymous feedback in late July which contained links to media articles concerning claims of workplace harassment and unfair treatment at the company. Individuals with knowledge of any criminal conduct such as sexual harassment and assault should report such incidents immediately to the police.

Power up your PR and communications efforts today with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE's PR Asia Week on 1 and 2 December. Learn ways to build an evidence-based practice, up the ante on your strategies, and be head and shoulders above your competition. Click here to register today! 

Photo courtesy: 12RF

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Ubisoft reportedly investigated by TAFEP for sexual harassment and discrimination claims



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