Safeguarding and Vulnerability – A Consideration for All

  • Legal Development 27 February 2024 27 February 2024
  • UK & Europe

  • Regulatory & Investigations - People Challenges

Traditionally, safeguarding has been associated with the protection of children and vulnerable adults from abuse and/or neglect. We are now in a world where safeguarding is much wider in its application, and, as we examine in this article, there is a need for all organisations, whatever their size or purpose, to ensure that they consider safeguarding as part of their suite of concerns and something which should form part of their risk registers.

The concept of a vulnerable adult has generally been someone who, because of issues such as dementia, learning disability, mental ill-health or substance abuse, has care and support needs that may make them more vulnerable to abuse or neglect.

However, Section 14 of the Care and Support statutory guidance defines adult safeguarding as follows:

“Protecting an adult’s right to live in safety, free from abuse and neglect. It is about people and organisations working together to prevent and stop both the risks and experience of abuse or neglect, while at the same time making sure that the adult’s wellbeing is promoted including, where appropriate, having regard to their views, wishes, feelings and beliefs in deciding on any action. This must recognise that adults sometimes have complex interpersonal relationships and may be ambivalent, unclear or unrealistic about their personal circumstances.”

As social and cultural expectations over what constitutes “vulnerability” are ever changing in modern times, including as a result of organisations like #Me Too and Everyone’s Invited, we are seeing the principles of safeguarding extending beyond the protection of vulnerable groups, to the protection of people generally, and specifically examining how an imbalance of power in any organisation can make anyone, at any level, within that business or organisation “vulnerable”.

Since December 2017, following the allegations of sexual exploitation which were made against Oxfam’s staff in Haiti, the Charity Commission requires charity trustees to take reasonable steps to protect from harm all people who come into contact with their charity. 

We all now live in a society where the behaviours and cultures within businesses and organisations will likely be measured against safeguarding principles, both nationally and internationally, and where, if we want to provide a safe and supportive environment for all who work in and/or come into contact with our business or organisation, we must be able to demonstrate a robust and successful safeguarding culture, which has been embedded across the whole business or organisation.

What does this mean for businesses and organisations in general?

It means that these entities must be able to demonstrate they have considered safeguarding risks, show their commitment to the policies and arrangements they have in place, and ensure that all levels of the business or organisation play their part in safeguarding and promoting the well-being of persons who may be at risk of harm. Safeguarding can only ever be truly effective if it is embedded across every level and aspect of the business or organisation.

How can they do this? 

They can do this by: 

  • ensuring potential/actual risks in safeguarding are considered at both corporate and operational levels and ensuring that there is effective oversight of the same.
  • committing to clear corporate safeguarding leadership, in all layers in the business or organisation, which models a culture of company-wide safeguarding awareness and reporting. One of the ways that this can be achieved is by having senior executives visibly championing safeguarding.
  • implementing a safer recruitment approach across the business or organisation, openly advertising that employees will require DBS checks for certain roles, where necessary, while also carrying out robust employment checks and reference requests.
  • ensuring safeguarding training is undertaken by everyone within the business or organisation and also by contractors or commissioned service providers delivering services into or on behalf of the company.
  • putting in place an infrastructure which facilitates staff acting safely and proportionately in raising concerns through appropriate channels.
  • knowing how to manage, report and investigate current and non-recent safeguarding allegations of abuse and/or neglect.
  • including safeguarding as a standard agenda item for staff supervision and team meetings.
  • systematically using well-developed evaluation and performance monitoring relating to safeguarding in the business or organisation.

Businesses and organisations also need to consider safeguarding in the context of their corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR is, as we know, based on the premise that these entities should operate according to principles and policies that make a positive impact on society and the environment. CSR goes beyond legal obligations by encouraging businesses and organisations to voluntarily adopt ethical, sustainable and responsible business practices that seek to deliver benefits to consumers, shareholders, employees and society. CSR initiatives often focus on social impact and human rights concerns, such as ensuring fair wages, safe working conditions and proper treatment of employees, and encourage accountability both internally and externally. Consequently, if today’s businesses and organisations want to show that they are good corporate citizens, in response to increasing societal pressure, they must demonstrate that they work in a way that safeguards and promotes the welfare of people they employ and also their customers/service users.

There are many benefits to being proactive in addressing safeguarding in your business or organisation. Consumers increasingly prefer brands that share their values and being proactive in addressing safeguarding gives businesses and organisations a way to demonstrate those values and build trust and loyalty, thereby enhancing their competitive advantage. It also helps attract top talent, as more workers seek employers whose values align with their own. It drives employee engagement and retention, and has the potential to prevent legal issues, claims, fines, and reputational damage.

In the last year we have seen headline grabbing news of allegations of inappropriate behaviour across many organisations – from the CBI to BP, from Abercrombie & Fitch to most recently the Red Bull F1 team. Allegations are denied and investigations undertaken, but whatever the outcome of the investigation, by then the damage to the organisation and the trust placed in it by its employees, customers and third parties may have been lost. Better to ensure a safeguarding culture, which in most situations will prevent the harm occurring and avoid the need for public condemnation. 

The times, they are a-changin’, and all types of businesses and organisations should be taking steps to adapt to these evolving societal expectations. We are now operating in an environment where safeguarding applies to everyone and where, concurrently, safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility.

Stay informed on the latest developments and issues surrounding safeguarding, abuse, and neglect with our market-leading Abuse and Neglect Team. Sign up now to receive regular bitesize articles delivered straight to your inbox. Don't miss out on valuable insights – click here to subscribe.

Lastly, our Abuse and Neglect team have their upcoming Annual Abuse & Neglect Conference in London, click here to find out more. 


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