Old Vic executive director Kate Varah thinks the scheme could have universal appeal

Cultural bodies look at new ways to address bullying

Caroline Parry, Issue 118/11, p13, 01.11.2018
National Portrait Gallery is first museum to launch Guardians scheme, which makes it easier for employees to talk about bullying and sexual harassment. By Caroline Parry
London’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has become the first museum to implement an innovative workplace scheme that aims to make it easier for staff to talk about bullying and sexual harassment.

The Guardians scheme, which has been devised by London’s Old Vic theatre, aims to offer staff a confidential but less formal outlet to share workplace concerns. The Old Vic developed the programme in partnership with staff in the wake of allegations of misconduct against its former artistic director Kevin Spacey.

Lornette Pemberton, the NPG’s director of human resources, says the programme recognises that not everyone wants to raise issues with union representatives or the human resources (HR) team.

“Sometimes, people just want to check something out,” she says. “They may feel HR or the union would make things too formal.”

To implement the programme, organisations invite staff from all levels to apply to become Guardians. Their role, for which they receive training, is to listen and give support on issues, which can range from serious to everyday matters.

According to Pemberton, although the NPG has strong union reps, a good HR team and a staff assistance scheme (introduced about a year ago), the Guardians programme offers another avenue to bring issues to light. The NPG also intends to promote the programme to freelance staff and volunteers, who may
not feel other avenues are open to them.

The NPG was approached about implementing the programme in the spring by the Old Vic and launched the programme at the beginning of October.

“These are financially challenging times, and as a sector, we rely on a real commitment from our people,” says Pemberton. “This programme puts us at the forefront of employee engagement in an innovative way – and without having a financial impact.”

Sharing best practice


Kate Varah, the executive director of the Old Vic, says the theatre is approaching other organisations because it wants to share its learning and best practice.

“The more organisations that we spoke to, the more apparent it became that this scheme could have universal application,” Varah says.

About 20 organisations have implemented the programme or are considering how to, including the Southbank Centre, which is evaluating how best to employ the scheme across its organisational structure.

It is also being implemented by organisations beyond arts and heritage, including law firm Lewis Silkin, which also offers pro bono advice to Guardians. The network aims to bring together the different organisations that are implementing the programme to share best practice.

Tamsin Russell, the professional development officer at the Museums Association, says bullying and sexual harassment is an issue in all sectors, and it is the degree of transparency that is key. She says that it would be good practice for museums to consider the Guardians approach, and to reflect on whether it meets their needs.

However, she points out that due to the size and scale of the programme, it may not be feasible for all organisations. She suggests a regional approach could work in some areas.

“We should be mindful of the other help and support that may be out there – from trade unions to employee assistance programmes – and also to remember that HR can still be an informal group to approach about any concerns,” says Russell.

Organisations should also look at their existing policies to ensure they foster a culture of inclusion and positive treatment, she recommends. This includes assessing policies on equality, diversity and inclusion; grievance/concern resolution; bullying and harassment; respect and dignity; and whistleblowing. A competency framework should also highlight positive and inclusive behaviours.

Comments