The Whistleblower

27 nov 2022 • 6 min

Suzanne Reid was an employee representative at IFLA headquarters. She has since changed careers and recovered from the experience. IFLA she feels, however, is beyond rescue.

Suzanne Reid didn´t return to IFLA after she recovered from her depression. She now runs a business in tourism and event in southern France. Photo: Ézilda Pelissier

There are warnings of an autumn storm in the hilly landscape of the southern French département of Aveyron. Suzanne Reid has to windproof and rainproof her home, a 17th-century stone house that she bought a couple of years ago. Here she started a new life, far from IFLA headquarters in the Dutch administrative centre, The Hague.

In her previous role, she was responsible for IFLA’s contacts with its members. Another of her workplace commitments was the post of Chair of the Employee Representation Body (ERB), a staff council which represents employees’ viewpoints to IFLA management.

”I imagined that frank discussion would get things moving in the right direction. I know that many people are not comfortable speaking openly about issues, while I myself have that ability and consider it a personal asset. Therefore, I gladly placed myself as a buffer between management and staff.”

In July 2019, an employee at the headquarters sent an email to their colleagues, the Governing Board of IFLA and the important financier the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation simultaneously. The email described poor leadership and unacceptable working conditions. 

”Nobody should have to call in sick because of low mood, anxiety, and depression caused by bullying and threatening behaviour. Nobody should have to cry in the toilets because of poorly-managed workload. Nobody should have to feel isolated and totally uninvolved in the workplace. Nobody deserves to be shouted at,” the employee wrote.

Through the staff council, Suzanne Reid informed IFLA Secretary General Gerald Leitner that what was described could be defined as harassment and bullying, and that Dutch legislation supported the initiation of documenting events at headquarters in a special incident log. 

”My intention with the log was to have a professional approach so that management would understand that we took the situation seriously. I hoped that this would create meaningful discussions about how the situation could be improved.”

We recorded that more than 80 per cent of employees had experienced harassment in the workplace.

The log was used to collect employees’ experiences of harassment, bullying and other negative aspects of the psychosocial work environment. The testimonies, according to Suzanne Reid, described shouting and threatening language, as well searching through emails, depriving employees of their professional freedom through detailed control of all tasks, and the bosses taking sole credit for the employees’ hard work.

At the initiative of the staff council, a code of conduct was drawn up. Such a document had not existed before, according to Suzanne Reid, and without clear guide-lines on what is unacceptable, it is difficult to argue that someone is behaving incorrectly.

The staff council also conducted an anonymous survey in which all staff were invited to participate and share their experiences working at headquarters. The findings were eventually presented to IFLA’s management, but the reaction was not what Suzanne Reid had expected, or at least had hoped for.

”We recorded that more than 80 per cent of employees had experienced bullying and harassment in the workplace. I thought that what we had described would make them deeply concerned, but instead of being proactive and trying to improve the situation, their response was to attempt to dismantle the staff council, attack the code of conduct and create division among the staff.”

Suzanne Reid had heard that the working environment at IFLA’s headquarters was not ideal even before she started working there. She had previously worked for Liber (the Association of European Research Libraries), which is based at the same address. 

”When I applied for the job at IFLA, an employee warned me of the poor work environment. I was also informed that many people were looking for jobs elsewhere.”

She thought the person she was talking to was being overly dramatic. Before joining Liber, she had worked administratively at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and at several large energy companies. She had experienced her fair share of undesirable behaviour – surely IFLA couldn’t present a greater challenge than these other demanding environments?

But she soon realised that there was some truth to what she had been told.

”It didn’t take long to realise the warnings were justified.”

Shortly before the employee raised the alarm in the summer of 2019, there had been an anonymous email on the same theme. Behind the message were about 15 former employees, according to Biblioteksbladets source. ”Staff turnover is high and sick leave is at such a high level that the Board should react,” they wrote.

The email also included references to posts about IFLA on Glassdoor, a website where employers are commented on and rated. ”The posts provide evidence that something serious is going on at IFLA headquarters and that changes are necessary,” the anonymous writers claimed.

The first posts on Glassdoor about IFLA, written in 2019, included:

”I can’t believe that the library community and all the great librarians are represented by an organisation with such outdated and old-fashioned values and methods.”

”There is a terrorist regime ruling here, this place is a real hell.”

There were even rumours that the office´s e-mails were being monitored.

The posts continued in this vein almost without exception. In a post from February this year, the federation was compared to North Korea and the Soviet Union. The headline read: ”If Kim Jong-Un ran an International Library Associations Federation”. 

The former employees summarised their appeals to the Governing Board in three points:

• Staff well-being must be guaranteed by the employer. ”Everyone is at risk.”

• Measures must be taken to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organisation. ”The ongoing brain drain must be stopped.”

• IFLA should not be built around the interests of one individual.

 Suzanne Reid says that she understands people’s concerns about how any criticism from them may affect their prospects in the labour market, but she still wishes that more people dared to share their views on how IFLA is run.

”I may sound idealistic, but I have always been convinced that people can influence their quality of life and their future by joining forces. If they are not prepared to do so, there will never be any change.”

The email from the employee who chose not to remain anonymous had a real effect. The fact that the staff council reacted by creating the incident log and producing a code of conduct met with some surprise, according to Suzanne Reid. At the same time, she got the impression that it also brought hope.

”But it was always hard to tell, because so many people feared negative consequences, or even losing their jobs.”

Colleagues who had ignored her in the daytime so as not to risk being associated with her and the staff council, would suddenly get in touch in their spare time or send messages via social media to express their appreciation that someone had the courage to try to do something about the problems. However, the unpredictability of not knowing who would be supportive and who would not made her almost paranoid. 

”There were even rumours that the office’s e-mails were being monitored and that basic staff privacy was not being respected. Several employees claimed they felt that management had access to information that they really should not have had access to. I couldn’t seem to trust anything or anyone.”

This fear of coming forward and openly testifying about opinions and experiences is something that Biblioteksbladet also encountered during its reporting on IFLA. Suzanne Reid believes that she can stand up for what she says because she is not professionally rooted in the library world. It means she does not feel she has to kowtow to anyone in order to protect her future employment. 

”I am sure that people at IFLA have been afraid to rock the boat because of their future job prospects. In the end, no one wants to be a whistleblower, and it is unusual for someone who has taken on that role to later continue on their chosen career path.”

The dysfunctionality that the incident log was designed to highlight was also what made Suzanne Reid determined to leave IFLA. She describes how her well-being deteriorated, and going to work in the morning became a real struggle.

”One morning I was sitting with a cup of coffee and trying to get myself to move. But I just couldn’t.”

She remained in her chair for a long time, unable to do anything at all. A doctor diagnosed depression, the working conditions at IFLA being the primary factor in this diagnosis.

Suzanne Reid chose not to return to IFLA when she recovered. The period of illness and her experience in The Hague led to the career change that took her to the south of France. Today she runs a business in the tourism and event industry.

She says that she did not expect any change in IFLA. She did not think that anyone in management would be held accountable for the employees’ suffering at the headquarters. But the testimonies about the situation eventually floated to the surface, and Gerald Leitner was forced out of the role of secretary general. 

On the day she was photographed outside her French house, she received the news from The Hague that by mutual agreement Gerald Leitner would no longer work for IFLA in the new year. A press release about the agreement praised Gerald for his work and stated that investigations had not revealed any harassment in the workplace.

Suzanne Reid thinks the statements are remarkable. Despite her connection to the initiatives that were taken after the employee raised the alarm in 2019, and her confirmation that she was prepared to talk to those who investigated the work environment, she was never contacted.

”It leads me to believe that this was all orchestrated by IFLA’s Board and management.”

She does not feel that IFLA will now transform and become a well-functioning and healthy organisation. It is simply not possible as long as the culture of silence remains. 

”I do not think that IFLA will be able to recover from this. If it were up to me to do something about the situation, I would recommend the formation of a completely new, independent international library organisation.”

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