Recently on this blog we highlighted the challenges faced by organisations now in responding to allegations of harassment and the importance of the response to the same. Women’s soccer in Canada was described as an example. Another example is emerging with the Welsh Rugby Union. It would sadly not be a surprise if other National Governing Bodies find themselves facing similar allegations. Responses do not need to just be reactive and organisations should consider reviewing their culture, policies, training and procedures to ensure they are doing all they can to ensure harassment does not occur and if it does there is a process in place to respond swiftly to any disclosure.

In a scandal described as being “on a level” with the racism scandal that has rocked Yorkshire County Cricket Club, the Welsh Rugby Union (the “WRU”) has been hit by accusations of sexism and racism, following an investigation by the BBC. Two women have presented accusations of threats and a “toxic culture” that caused them to leave their jobs and left them feeling suicidal.  

Charlotte Wathan, the formal General Manager of the Welsh Women’s Rugby, who was hired in 2018 to help transform women’s rugby, is one of the voices speaking out against the WRU. Wathan states that she was told by her colleague, in front of other senior members of staff, that he wanted to take her back to the hotel, tie her up and rape her. She recalls everyone laughing as she left the room and burst into tears, describing the entire encounter as “one of the worst experiences” of her life. Wathan states she told the WRU of her experience and that the culture was “toxic” in 2021 and having an adverse impact on her mental health.

Wathan’s tribunal claim was withdrawn and she ultimately left the organisation in early 2022 after reaching an “amicable resolution” with the WRU which placed confidentiality restrictions on both parties. The WRU has commented that they are unable to provide further detail on the investigations conducted into Wathan’s claim on account of these restrictions but assured those concerned that they have robust procedures in place to deal with complaints and that they were committed to maintaining a safe working environment for all of their staff.  

However, Wathan’s claim is not an isolated incident. Another former employee of the WRU has alleged that she suffered sexist comments and was bullied by her manager prior to her leaving in 2018. The employee, who has requested to remain anonymous, states that she was constantly undermined and that irrelevant issues would be nit-picked at by the employees of the WRU. The bullying was so intense she felt the need to tell the HR department that she felt suicidal and had gone as far as writing a manual for her husband with instructions on what to do in the event that she died. The HR department responded by telling her that she could move to another building but the employee feared that complaining would make her life more difficult so she left without pursuing the grievance. The subject of her complaints was allowed to remain in his position.

The employee went further to state that when she considered making a claim via the employment tribunal, the WRU took a stand against her and argued that she had both left the claim too late and that there were no grounds for her to succeed. It was stated that the WRU “bullied” her and stated that they would “put in a costs order” against her, meaning she was forced to consider whether pursuing the claim and interrupting her family life was worth it.

The WRU has contended that they investigated the matter thoroughly and that correct procedures were followed. However, following the release of the BBC expose on the difficulties faced by WRU employees they are now seeking to investigate the matter further.

Amanda Blanc, Chief Executive of Aviva and the UK Government women in finance champion, has also spoken out publicly about the issues of sexism she faced when dealing with the WRU. Blanc, who felt compelled to quit after only two years as the Wales' Professional Rugby Board chairwoman, described feeling that she was “not being listened to” and that the entirety of the WRU “needed modernisation”. Blanc reported a “truly offensive discussion” about reducing the sanctions for an elected WRU member when he made public comments about men being the “master race” and the fact that he believed women should “stick to ironing”.

Labour MP for the Gower and former Wales rugby international, Tonia Antoniazzi, has responded to the allegations, stressing the need for the Welsh government to set up an independent body to oversee complaints against the WRU. Antoniazzi described the situation as on a level with the issues seen in cricket earlier in 2022 and said that there was no way for women experiencing these issues to stand up to the WRU without fear of damaging their reputation unless they had “big balls and deep pockets”. It was stated by Antoniazzi that without an independent party available to review the allegations, any investigation by the WRU would be equivalent to them “marking their own homework”.

The WRU has denied all of the allegations stating that all allegations and complaints were investigated fully and that they take matters of inclusivity very seriously. In a public statement in January 2023, the WRU stressed that they had robust procedures in place and followed up on all issues with either internal or external investigations. Warrant Gatland, coach of the Welsh men’s team, also denied knowing much about the issues of sexism alleged by WRU employees but stressed that there were “two sides to every story” and that he hoped “both sides [would be [represented]”.

In addition to the allegations of sexism and bullying, a former employee of the WRU, Marc Roberts, reported that senior managers would use racial slurs without action being brought against them. Roberts stated that he was present when WRU management used racial slurs in online staff meetings, attended by senior management, without anyone saying that it was not appropriate. Roberts worked for the WRU for over 20 years but quit this month stating that the culture had got worse in the last five years.

As such, despite the assurances from the WRU that they are working to form a more inclusive environment and taking steps to promote inclusivity, there are certainly issues within the organisation that need addressing.