Chelsea FC rocked by concerns, complaints and a suicide

LONDON – Month after tense month, problems escalate inside Chelsea FC

About a dozen employees in the club’s marketing department said they expected their boss to be reprimanded in front of coworkers. Others said they dealt with her anger in more abusive ways, at the behest of one person ordered to stand up and skip staff meetings.

The pressure took its toll. Until last year, many Chelsea employees went missing from medical leave for weeks, or sometimes months. One employee said that at least 10 staff members from the department, which employs about 50 people, had left the club. Then, in early January, a famous former staff member killed himself.

Although it is unknown whether workplace pressures were to blame, his death shocked Chelsea staff, who had come to consider him a friend and sounding board. During a conversation at a memorial service for him earlier this year, his sense of shock and sadness sparked anger.

“This should never have happened,” said one employee.

Amid mounting internal pressure to address the problems, Chelsea this spring hired a consultant to conduct what it describes as a “cultural review” of the marketing department. But few staff members were confident in the process: A review of their workplace, they were told, would be overseen by the executive, who they felt was responsible for its worst problems.

It is hard to think of a professional sports team whose staff has faced the kind of uncertainty that Chelsea staff have faced this year.

The club’s world was turned upside down in March, when the team’s longtime owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, was cleared by the British government, just as he announced plans to sell the Premier League club. Until that process was completed, those working for Chelsea – from players and coaches to officials and lower level staff members – were left to worry about how to do their jobs; Will they still be paid for it; And their jobs will still exist if a new boss is found.

Some of that uncertainty vanished in May, when a group led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehley paid a record price to acquire Chelsea and lift the toughest ban on the team’s business. Given. But as all this was going on in the headlines, a more disturbing situation was brewing behind the scenes.

The New York Times interviewed nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees reporting this article. Speaking freely, all painted a picture of a dysfunctional workplace environment at Chelsea marked by unhappiness, intimidation and fear. But it was the suicide death in January of former Chelsea TV head Richard Bignell that brought to light long-standing concerns about the environment inside the team’s marketing department – ​​a group consisting of about 50 employees – and its leader. Gary’s Behavior Twelvetree.

In a statement on Wednesday, two days after The Times contacted the club about the staff’s allegations, Chelsea said its new board had “appointed an external review team to investigate allegations made under previous ownership”. “

“The club’s new board strongly believes in a workplace environment and corporate culture that empowers its employees and ensures they feel safe, included, valued and trusted,” the statement said.

While the club said “preliminary steps have been taken by the new owners to establish an environment in line with our values,” it is unclear whether any action has been taken by the new board in response to staff members’ allegations against Twelvetree. . The club said it was not available for comment.

While Bignell’s family opted not to speak with The Times when contacted, nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees spoke of a toxic workplace culture under Twelvetree, which they said humiliated, bullied and abused many staff members. Sometimes even just attending meetings is intimidating.

Employees spoke on condition of anonymity because some still work at Chelsea, or football, and elaborating their experiences publicly feared retaliation or damage to their professional reputations. But a coroner’s report compiled after Bignell’s death in January and reviewed by The Times linked his suicide to “disappointment following the loss of his job”.

By March, under pressure following Bignell’s death and amid growing frustration among co-workers and friends, Chelsea hired an outside firm to look into the culture inside the department as well as the bullying against Twelvetree by several employees. Make allegations. But to the dismay of some employees, the club made no acknowledgment that the review was related to his death or any specific complaint.

A staff member who left Chelsea’s marketing department said the experience working for Twelvetree has become overwhelming; Fearing for his mental health, the employee left the club despite not being in line for other employment. However, the experience was so disturbing that the former employee reported it in writing to Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck. Others said they expressed similar concerns in communications with other top executives or in exit interviews with the club’s human resources staff. But nothing changed beyond a churn of employees that had become so commonplace that it was an open secret among recruiters who sometimes directed candidates toward open positions at Chelsea.

Some employees relied on the department’s review when they heard that it was to be jointly overseen by Twelvetree, the department head, and outside consultant Chelsea.

“That wasn’t going to relieve the worries, was it?” Said one person asked to participate in the review. “How can it be if he is reviewing his own culture?”

Staff members said they had not yet received any conclusions from the completed review, and that there had been no change in work practices.

A former member of the marketing department said, “I consider myself a very strong person and before working with Chelsea I never felt worried about my mental health.” “But soon after joining, I wasn’t sleeping well and it got worse.”

According to several of his former colleagues, that concern began to show up in BigNail. was beigneled a popular member of the club, is leading its television operation, Chelsea TV. The channel was initially run by the club’s communications department before moving into marketing as part of a new digital strategy implemented by the club’s hierarchy.

The switch meant a profound change for Bignell, who had spent a decade running a television channel and now needed to focus his attention on producing digital content for social media, accounts that the team’s marketing staff directed. were in Bignell’s relationship with Twelvetree, staff members recalled, was a frightening one; Bignell, like others, struggled to deal with the marketing head’s management style, which could include biting, yelling criticism for his work, some employees said, at times leaving colleagues in tears.

Bignell, a married father of two young daughters, largely hid the anguish he was feeling from his coworkers, employees said. He described her as having a jovial, positive disposition, a co-worker who is always ready to share a joke or lend an ear. But gradually according to the people who knew him, his physical condition had deteriorated considerably.

“The last time I saw him he was walking around Stamford Bridge and he was a mess,” said a colleague, who confronted Bignell in the summer of 2021, when he went on medical leave. “He looked sick. He had lost so much weight.”

Bignell returned to Chelsea in September and was suddenly fired the next day. In early January, he took his own life. team, in Announcement of his death on his website, said that Bignell “was a very popular and highly respected member of the wider football and sports broadcasting family.” Meanwhile, the coroner’s report later linked his mental state at the time of his death to his firing by Chelsea. “Richard was deeply troubled by anxiety, depression and despair after losing his job,” the report said.

Even after Bignell’s death, and the club’s cultural review, Chelsea’s marketing staff continued to lose staff.

Those who have moved say that they are now used to providing emotional support for their partners. For example, after attending a recent party marking the departure of several employees, a former Chelsea staff member said she had spoken with so many people struggling with life at work that she felt the incident Has doubled as a therapy session.

Meanwhile, Chelsea’s new ownership group said Wednesday that it has reached out to Bignell’s relatives through the family’s attorney. “Our condolences to the entire family of Richard,” the team statement said. “His passing is deeply felt by his colleagues at the club and throughout the football community.”

Senior Chelsea officials were already speaking with the family, which raised concerns about the circumstances of his death, and staff members said they continued to press for change internally. But the sale of the club in May has brought new uncertainty.

As new owners take control of the team, the most powerful leaders of Chelsea’s old regime are being replaced. Chief executive Guy Lawrence, who runs the day-to-day operations of the club, and Buck, the outgoing president, were the most senior leaders whom staff members contacted with their concerns about working conditions.

Now both are among the dropouts.

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