Fear. Illness. Silence.

28 nov 2022 • 13 min

REPORTAGE What is happening within IFLA? In search of answers, journalist Lisa Bjurwald travelled to The Hague, where IFLA’s headquarters are located. She found a culture of silence and an organisation that lacks confidence in its leaders.

Illustration: Tzenko Stoyanov

The city of The Hague brings to mind Slobodan Milošević and other warlords dragged in front of the International Criminal Court. However, IFLA’s dismissed Secretary General Gerald Leitner has committed no war crimes, and the hearing is to take place in the Labour Court. The comments about him are not exactly flattering, and come from people with former or current IFLA connections, who have chosen to speak out about Leitner’s rule, which now appears to have ended. According to our sources from within IFLA, those who supported him paint a different picture: ”amazing”, ”radiant” and, indeed, ”charismatic”.

GERALD LEITNER joined IFLA in 2016 after being recruited from a similar role in Austria, where he was praised for his work. Leitner brought with him a wealth of experience, as it was then called. IFLA highlighted his role as former president of the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations (Eblida), his more than 25 years of working in the library world, and his experience in the global library sector. Gerald Leitner was the perfect candidate.

But it went downhill relatively quickly. In April of this year, IFLA issued a brief press release announcing that the Secretary General had been relieved from his duties with immediate effect. It was ”the only possible solution to the current situation”, according to the Governing Board. The parting with Gerald Leitner was the culmination of a turbulent time that spanned several years. The working environment at IFLA’s headquarters in The Hague is said to have been very problematic. Some have even described it as ”toxic”. In the autumn of 2021, some 20 former IFLA employees called for action, and investigations were carried out. In March, the Governing Board made a decision to relieve him from his duties.

The staff didn´t leave voluntarily, but were forced out.

THE HEARING of Leitner v IFLA is due to start at eleven o’clock on a Thursday in early October. The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government and of hundreds of international organisations, could not be more different from the bustling capital, Amsterdam. Much of the city centre is made up of anonymous skyscrapers and glass buildings. A typical ”briefcase city” whose impenetrable façade should prove very suitable for a review by the International Library Federation.

I have travelled down from Stockholm and am in the court building 50 minutes before the hearing is to take place. It’s a stormy autumn day and people are rushing in through the heavy gates of the court and on to the mandatory bag checks. There is a long queue to the metal detectors and umbrella after umbrella is stacked on the conveyor belt. I don’t see anyone from IFLA or any press. However, the large building is full of lawyers, defendants and plaintiffs rushing around between the courtrooms. I get coffee from the small cafeteria. The clock is ticking.

Many issues remain now that Gerald Leitner has been relieved from his duties. One of the most important involves the following: Stichting IFLA Global Libraries, SIGL, is the IFLA foundation (based at the same address and with several former IFLA chairs on the Board), which was established in 2016 to manage the millions donated by the American ”Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation”, the world’s largest charitable foundation. Remarkably, Leitner is still Secretary General of SIGL.

How can he be forced away from one chair, but remain on the other?

Is Gerald Leitner, through his position within SIGL, actually as influential as before?

Will he be awarded the huge sum of 1.5 million euros in damages that his representative is said to be demanding for the dismissal?

It turns out that Leitner’s dismissal was not conducted correctly. IFLA has not complied with Dutch law, according to information obtained by Biblioteksbladet. This has put IFLA in a position where Leitner can claim damages. According to certain sources, the dismissed Secretary General believes that IFLA was a bad employer. The Governing Board’s Treasurer has therefore recommended that an offer of financial compensation be made to him.

IN OCTOBER, at the time of writing, Gerald Leitner is on sick leave and relieved of his duties. IFLA is in limbo as far as leadership is concerned:

”His contract gives him a full salary for the first year of sick leave and, I think, 70 per cent if there is a second year.” 

The question therefore remains whether IFLA can appoint a new Secretary General during Leitner’s sick leave, regardless of the issues around how the appointment will take place, and which people would be considered.

A leaked internal email shows that Gerald Leitner took sick leave on 3rd March this year. However, the Board meeting at which it was decided to relieve him from his duties was not held until the next day, 4th March. Did someone provide him with information that made him decide to take sick leave? According to Dutch law, it is much more difficult to dismiss a person who is on sick leave than one who is not.

ANOTHER CENTRAL issue relates to IFLA’s internal culture and the well-being of its employees. If the management remains faithful to a boss who allegedly created an atmosphere of terror in the headquarters and harassed the staff, how can a change in the workplace environment be possible? Is the management even interested in an improvement? In addition, many believe that Gerald Leitner has not been alone among the bosses in creating a bad atmosphere.

IFLA is driven by nepotism and corruption.

Several former and current employees at IFLA’s headquarters at 5, Prins Willem-Alexanderhof in the centre of The Hague, an address shared with the Royal Library and the Museum of Children’s Books, compare Gerald Leitner to an animal. Some liken him to a rooster in the female-dominated library world, strutting around as though he ruled the roost. One of the sources is careful to point out that the ”hens” are not stupid. On the contrary, the women in Leitner’s sphere are highly educated and intelligent, which says something about his ability to charm anyone.

Another person I speak to describes Gerald Leitner as a lion who stands out in the stylistically more modest culture, with his impressive salt-and-pepper quiff, well-tailored suits and freshly polished Italian-leather shoes:

”He smells of power and money, like a character in a cheap novel.”

HOWEVER, having egocentric traits is not a criminal offence. What exactly has the dismissed Secretary General done that is so terrible, that employees are said to have quit and taken sick leave in their droves?

”First of all, it’s not just him, but also the managers around him,” says a source with insight, who, after much email and telephone contact, has finally agreed to meet physically at a restaurant in Holland. We can call the person by the gender–neutral name ’Kim’. Kim is eloquent, committed and very credible. 

”And the staff didn’t leave voluntarily, but were forced out. Their goal is to purge everyone who has been critical of the leadership – including me.”

Why have you been critical?

”Where to start? IFLA is driven by nepotism and corruption, and they have their hooks in most of the internal staff, to be able to demand their loyalty. It means that people are scared and stay silent.”

BIBLIOTEKSBLADET HAS previously reported that two investigations of the working environment were carried out by external consulting agencies. One person reveals that one investigation report had only been made available to Board members who were physically in The Hague in March 2022. After reading it on the spot, they had to return the documents.

The investigation cleared Gerald Leitner of suspicion of harassment, bullying and similar accusations. According to the same person, however, the investigation in question only exonerated him of the accusations by a single whistleblower, which is an important point: many other employees had raised their voices.

I ask my source, Kim, in Holland, in order to make absolutely certain: Do these investigations exist?

”Yes, and that’s almost the worst part of it all,” Kim replies. ”We spoke out and cooperated with the consultants, we told them everything. Then all our information was ignored, and the Board now claims that there is no evidence of harassment or culture of silence. It’s unbelievable.”

Several sources confirm that a large number of current and former IFLA employees gave detailed testimonies to the external consultants about Gerald Leitner’s behaviour and the harmful culture of the workplace. But IFLA’s management has chosen to obscure the results of the investigations. In a leaked email dated 3:rd March from Danish board member Kirsten Boelt, British board member Ayub Khan and former Treasurer Perry Moree, who has now left due to health reasons, they express their dismay at the findings of the investigation – which echo the findings of the first investigation.

Thus, contrary to IFLA’s official position, there has never been any internal doubt as to what the consultants’ reports have revealed:

”Their conclusions, which are the result of the (24) interviews, support completely the conclusions that were mentioned earlier in the earlier report by Van den Brekel Advocaten ,” write the three board members.

”It is a very dark picture that is sketched, of an organisation in complete distress, with many very unhappy staff and ( … ) a ’culture of fear’, resulting in some cases in serious health problems and people who consider leaving IFLA HQ. Words as ’toxic’ and ’unsafe’ are often used to describe the work situation at IFLA HQ. The situation has been going on for five years.

ALMOST ALL interviewed staff state that immediate change is necessary, but they have no confidence in the Secretary General [Leitner] (almost half of them thinks he should be replaced, or at least no longer be responsible for the day-to-day business operations of the organization), or in the management skills of the three directors. The work pressure is described as ’insane’. (…)

The three of us think the situation is extremely serious and that the reputation of IFLA could seriously suffer from a long period of neglect of grave issues at IFLA HQ. We strongly believe that immediate action is necessary. (…)” 

Is the court case of Leitner v IFLA a chance for those affected by all this to get redress?

”It could have been, but IFLA is represented by a person who is very close to Leitner,” says Kim. ”So it’s all just for show, as with everything IFLA does.”

The person who, according to many sources, is very close to Leitner, is Board Chair Barbara Lison -— the only one on the Board who opposed the relieving of Gerald Leitner of his duties.

How can Leitner remain in the foundation (SIGL) that manages the millions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, when he has had to leave the post of IFLA Secretary General?

”Because they have done the same thing there as at the headquarters: removed those who raised critical voices,” Kim replies. ”When the management received the open question from the staff about why Leitner had not been asked to leave SIGL’s Board, they simply brushed the question off, or refused to answer it at all. It is, incidentally, a common procedure within IFLA – that they simply do not answer questions that they perceive as negative or awkward.”

Internal documents show that SIGL’s bylaws changed after the staff criticism of Gerald Leitner. Among other things, SIGL
is now named as the employer on some employees’ contracts, and not IFLA. No one we speak to can explain why, other than noting that IFLA’s SIGL foundation seems to be taking on an increasingly large role.
SIGL is chaired by Glòria Pérez-Salmerón, President of IFLA 2017-19. Pérez-Salmerón is also said to be very close to Gerald Leitner. Leitner himself, deposed Secretary General of IFLA, is still Secretary General of SIGL.

It is not only employees who are affected by the culture of silence, notes Kim, but also Board members:

After I left, I spent a whole week in bed, depressed.

”Those on the Board who dared to be open with the truth about various Board decisions – such as the incredible salary increases for Secretary General Leitner – have been threatened with legal action.”

The few Board members who did express concern about IFLA’s methods had to endure being yelled at, says another person from within:

”Gerald Leitner had a special gesture where he put his head in his hands as if the others were real fucking idiots. So I think there was an element of intimidation there. But Leitner was also surrounded by a kind of cult of those in seniority positions. They thought he was absolutely amazing.”

IT TURNS OUT that Gerald Leitner had a record wage increase during his time at the helm of IFLA. His predecessor is said to have received about 100,000 euros in salary per year. When Leitner took office in 2016, he received around 158,000. Given his high profile compared to that of his predecessor, this is nothing unusual in itself. In international management contexts, you often have to pay more for a ”star”.

”The first employment contract was valid for three years,” our source continues. ”But in April 2017, only one year after he started, he had a salary increase of 30,000 euros. Leitner’s salary thus rose rapidly from 158,000 to 188,000 euros. His contract was also extended until 2024.”

Then there was another leap – because when Gerald Leitner left his post last spring, his annual compensation package suddenly stood at 336,000 euros.

”So decisions must have been made between April 2017 and spring 2022 that increased the wages by a massive 148,000 euros. Who made these decisions, and where were they registered?”

The source above is very involved in the Federation’s activities, one of a core gang of ”about 20 people” trying to ”save IFLA”, as they put it themselves. Others have a desire to move on to new jobs. These have been difficult times for IFLA, notes a former key figure, Antonia Arahova, who declined to be interviewed. Arahova was the prospective Chair of the IFLA but abruptly resigned from the Board this spring due to family reasons, at the time of the announcement that Gerald Leitner was leaving his post.

The organisation needs time to ”heal”, as Arahova writes via email:

”IFLA’s Governing Board has promised to take clear steps to handle the situation and will report to its members about this frequently and transparently. 

( … ) I wish my former GB-colleagues all the best in their efforts to improve the situation.”

GERALD LEITNER’S CHARM has earned him many female fans in the library world, but it seems to stick in the eyes of many, as does his high salary and frequent travelling. According to Leitner’s contract, he is allowed to travel in business class instead of economy if the flight is longer than 4 hours. This is a policy that executives at many large companies and foundations enjoy, such as IFLA’s financier, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It’s hard to summarise how much Gerald Leitner has ruined other people’s lives, notes a former employee who chose to resign.

”It took me six months to get over the experience of working at IFLA. I pray to God that justice will be done.”

”Leitner didn’t scare me, even though he yelled at me quite a few times,” the person continues. ”But his behaviour was unbelievably disgusting. After I left, I spent a whole week in bed, depressed. Female employees were so stressed that they stopped menstruating. An elderly woman basically lost her mind.”

Gerald Leitner is said to have yelled at employees on numerous occasions, asked senior managers to fetch coffee and tea, thrown paper over a desk, and behaved ”arrogantly”. It’s a leadership style that is on the border between inappropriate and downright reprehensible. 

IN MANY CASES it’s one person’s word against another’s, and here the management’s lack of transparency – both externally and internally – has a large impact. Withholding information about the organisation’s operations from employees is not a sustainable attitude. The staff’s dissatisfaction cannot be swept under the carpet endlessly. The first complaints against Leitner by the staff came to the attention of the leading persons on the Board (not the entire Board, according to sources) already in the summer of 2019. The more the employees were neglected, the greater their frustration became. Even then IFLA was characterised by an ”us versus them” atmosphere, with managers and Board members against employees.

One employee describes such strong animosity and distrust that it is ”often difficult to work properly”. Several employees have plans to quit in 2023.

”In recent years people have been resigning or going on sick leave, constantly”, said another insider. ”These are people’s lives we’re talking about.”

IFLA members need to know the truth.

IFLA now faces the challenge of attracting new employees when the old ones quit. Sooner or later, the rumour will spread in library and cultural circles, if it has not already happened, that IFLA is a chaotic and unattractive workplace.

EARLIER THIS AUTUMN for example, Adjoa Boateng left the role of Chair of the IFLA Professional Council, which meant that she also lost her place on the IFLA Governing Board. According to her own statement, she has been threatened and slandered for bringing to attention the problems within the organisation. ”Lack of information, blackmail, intimidation. Rules and procedures are twisted to suit. The entire situation and story are unbelievable,” Boateng wrote, in a leaked internal email last spring. In the email, she appeals for help to save IFLA, including by calling on Chair of the Board Barbara Lison to resign.

Adjoa Boateng was scheduled to be interviewed for this article – but at the last moment she declined, seemingly out of concern for possible consequences. I tell that to my source, Kim, at our meeting in Holland. In my contact with Kim, I often had to repeat my reassurance of anonymity and protection, and that their identity will not be disclosed.

Several other people have expressed the same fear of speaking out. What exactly are you afraid of? What can the management do to you?

”What can’t they do?” Kim replies. ”Anyone who is critical or questions something, basically anything, gets punished and shunned. Several employees have openly told their bosses that they felt unsafe and afraid in the workplace. After that they were mocked and it was implied that they were just imagining things.”

A NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES who spoke out critically during the investigation of Gerald Leitner’s leadership are said to have had their employment contracts terminated. 

”Many have given up. IFLA members need to know the truth. The only option now is for the sufficient number of staff members to come together and enforce the holding of an extraordinary meeting about the future of IFLA.”

The employee who resigned and told me that it took six months to get over their experiences, says this about the future of IFLA:

”When I worked there a few years ago, there were 22 of us. I think I was the 20th to quit. We need some sort of justice, now.”

IN THE LABOUR COURT OF The Hague, the clock keeps ticking. I am glad that I took a packed lunch with me. Finally, some representatives from IFLA appear. They laugh excessively loudly, as if participating in an invisible theatrical performance. It’s odd behaviour in the face of what should be an uncomfortable meeting with a dismissed boss.

However, neither the main character Gerald Leitner nor his representative are on site. It is now closer to 1 o’clock and I contact both IFLA’s and the court’s press services as well as the building’s information desk to understand what is happening. No one is able to get any information other than that the legal hearing should have started at eleven. However, the guards point out, it is not displayed on any of the screens in the courthouse: ”You must have got the day wrong.” IFLA’s team is gone for good. Is it all some kind of scam?

After five hours, I leave the court without having seen any glimpse of Gerald Leitner. No trial has taken place. Maybe he’s not even in the country, a source suggests. Another guesses that IFLA’s Board, which is said to have close ties to Leitner, has settled the case amicably. I call IFLA’s communications department again. No answer.

It is a strategy that IFLA has always used for my attempts at contacting them: silence. This is interspersed with a nonsensical response from Acting Secretary General Helen Mandl on 14:th October: 

”As this is a court case, IFLA has no comment to make at this time. When we release a statement, you will find it on our website.”

Not even IFLA’s communications department, whose mission it is to assist the press, has been able to arrange an interview with any IFLA representative. This is despite the fact that we, the media, then have to resort to using anonymous sources. This kind of reticence is not good no matter what kind of company or person in power is involved. It is especially bad in the case of IFLA, which operates in a domain whose core values are freedom of expression, knowledge and information. If there is no attitude of openness, it is difficult to maintain credibility. Not least for the members.

Julia Zvobgo-Rozenboom was the IFLA Communications Officer, but also Chair of the ERB, the staff council, at IFLA head-quarters. When she left these posts in May 2022, she handed in a long and eloquent resignation letter, in which she lamented that the Federation had failed both ethically and morally. She revealed that when the staff voiced their concerns they were met with direct mockery from the management at a meeting in April:

”Staff stated concerns about their safety regarding the Secretary General’s [Gerald Leitners] behaviour and the SIGL Chair [Glòria Pérez-Salmerón] chose to respond by laughing hysterically and asking us… ’are you afraid he will kill you?’ No, the fear is about being on the receiving end of inappropriate and harmful behaviour which we’ve experienced.”

On 31:st October, IFLA announced via a post on its website that the Federation had reached an agreement with Gerald Leitner. He will formally leave IFLA in the new year. Several people on the current Governing Board have seen the report with staff testimonials about Leitner. None of the Board members can be ignorant of the criticism of his leadership. Nevertheless, IFLA’s Board has chosen to release their statement as follows: 

”Contrary to the rumours, Gerald Leitner has never been found responsible for any legal or contractual errors. No investigation has found any signs of fraud or harassment.”

Former Secretary General Gerald Leitner, IFLA Chair Barbara Lison and SIGL Chair Glòria Pérez-Salmerón have been given the opportunity to comment on the situation within IFLA and statements and allegations in this article.

Translation: Catherine Middleton

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