Chelsea FC rocked by concerns, complaints and suicide

LONDON – Stressful month after month, problems have accumulated inside Chelsea FC Nearly a dozen employees in the club’s marketing depa...


LONDON – Stressful month after month, problems have accumulated inside Chelsea FC

Nearly a dozen employees in the club’s marketing department said they expected to be reprimanded by their boss in front of their colleagues. Others said they dealt with his anger in more humiliating ways, ordered to stand up and leave staff meetings on one man’s word.

The pressure had its effect. Last year, several Chelsea employees were missing for weeks, if not months, of sick leave. At least 10 members of staff – from a department which employs around 50 people – had left the club altogether, an employee said. Then, in early January, a much-loved former member of staff took his own life.

While it’s unclear if workplace pressure was to blame, his death stunned Chelsea employees who had come to regard him as a friend and sounding board. During conversations at a memorial service for him earlier this year, their sense of shock and sadness gave way to anger.

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

Amid growing internal pressure to fix the problems, Chelsea this spring hired a consultancy to carry out what has been described as a “cultural review” of the marketing department. But few staff had confidence in the process: the review of their workplace, they were told, would be overseen by the executive who they said was responsible for the worst of its problems.

It’s hard to think of a professional sports team whose employees have had to endure the kind of uncertainty 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 sanctioned by the British government just as he announced plans sell the Premier League club. Until that process was complete, those who worked for Chelsea – from players and coaches to executives and lower-level staff – had to worry about how to do their jobs; whether they would still be paid for it; and if their employment would once again exist that a new owner would have been found.

Some of that uncertainty disappeared in May, when a group led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly paid a record price to acquire Chelsea and the most onerous restrictions on team activities have been lifted. But while all of this was playing out in the headlines, a more troubling situation was brewing behind the scenes.

The New York Times interviewed nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees when reporting this article. Speaking independently, all painted a picture of a dysfunctional working environment at Chelsea marked by unhappiness, bullying and fear. But it was the death by suicide in January of former Chelsea TV boss Richard Bignell that highlighted long-standing concerns about the environment within the team’s marketing department – a group comprising around 50 employees – and the behavior of its boss, Gary Twelvetree.

In a statement on Wednesday, two days after The Times contacted the club about the employee accusations, Chelsea said its new board had appointed “an external review team to investigate allegations which have been made under the previous owner”.

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

While the club said “initial steps have been taken by the new owners to create an environment in line with our values”, it is unclear whether any action has been taken by the new board in response to the staff members’ allegations against Twelvetree. The club said it was unavailable for comment.

While Bignell’s family chose not to speak to The Times when contacted, nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees have spoken out about a toxic work culture under Twelvetree which they say is left many staff feeling belittled, intimidated and sometimes even scared to even attend meetings.

The employees spoke on condition of anonymity as some still work at Chelsea, or in football, and feared reprisals or damage to their professional reputations by publicly detailing their experiences. But a coroner’s report written after Bignell’s death in January and reviewed by The Times linked his suicide to “desperation over the loss of his job”.

In March, under pressure after Bignell’s death and amid growing frustration among the colleagues and friends he had left behind, Chelsea hired an outside firm to investigate the culture within the department as well as the the accusations of intimidation made by several employees against Twelvetree. But to the frustration of some staff, the club did not acknowledge the review was linked to his death or any specific complaint.

A member of staff who left Chelsea’s marketing department said the experience of working for Twelvetree was simply too much to bear; fearing for his mental health, the employee left the club despite not finding another job. The experience had been so harrowing, however, that the former employee detailed it in writing to Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck. Others said they expressed similar concerns in communications with other senior managers or in exit interviews with club human resources staff. But little seemed to change beyond an employee turnover that had become so commonplace it was an open secret among recruiters who sometimes steer candidates towards vacant positions at Chelsea.

Few employees had confidence in the department’s review once they heard it was to be overseen jointly by Twelvetree, the head of the department, and the external consultants hired by Chelsea.

“That wasn’t going to address the concerns, was it?” said one person who asked to take part in the review. “How could it be if he reviews his own culture?”

Staff members said they had not yet received any findings from the now-completed review and there had been no changes to working practices.

“I consider myself a pretty strong person and before working with Chelsea I never felt like I had any concerns about my mental health,” said a former member of the marketing department. “But pretty soon after joining I wasn’t sleeping properly and it just got worse and worse.”

This anxiety became visible to Bignell, according to several of his former colleagues. Bignell had been a popular member of the club, at the head of his television operation, Chelsea TV. The channel was first managed by the club’s communication department before moving on to marketing as part of a new digital strategy put in place by the club’s hierarchy.

The change meant profound changes for Bignell, who had spent a decade running a television channel and now had to focus on producing digital content for social media accounts, which were under the direction of the team’s marketing staff. . Bignell’s relationship with Twelvetree, staffers remember, was strained; Bignell, like others, struggled to deal with the marketing manager’s management style, which could include biting and shouting criticisms of their work that some employees said sometimes left co-workers in tears.

A married father of two young daughters, Bignell largely hid the torment he felt from colleagues, employees said. They described him as having a sunny and positive disposition, a colleague always ready to share a joke or lend an ear. But gradually, according to people who knew him, his physical condition deteriorated noticeably.

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

Bignell returned to Chelsea in September and was abruptly dismissed the following day. At the beginning of January, he committed suicide. The team, in announcing his death on his website, said the “beloved” Bignell was “a hugely popular and hugely respected member of the big family of football and sports broadcasts”. The coroner’s report, meanwhile, went on to link his state of mind at the time of his death to his dismissal by Chelsea. “Richard was deeply troubled by anxiety, depression and despair following the loss of his job,” the report said.

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

Those who left say they have now become accustomed to providing emotional support to colleagues who remained. After attending a recent party marking the departure of several employees, for example, a former Chelsea staff member said she had spoken with so many people struggling with life at work that she felt the event had doubled as a therapy session.

Chelsea’s new ownership group, meanwhile, said on Wednesday they had contacted Bignell’s relatives through the family’s lawyer. “Our hearts go out to all of Richard’s family,” the team statement said. “His passing was deeply felt by his colleagues at the club and throughout the football community.”

Senior Chelsea officials had already spoken with the family, who had raised concerns about the circumstances of his death, and staff members said they were continuing to push internally for change. But the sale of the club in May only brought further uncertainty.

As the new owners take control of the team, the most powerful leaders of the old Chelsea regime are replaced. General manager Guy Laurence, who runs the day-to-day operations of the club, and Buck, the outgoing chairman, were the most senior executives staff members contacted to raise concerns about working conditions.

Now, both are among those who will leave.


If you are having suicidal thoughts, the following organizations can help you.

In Great Britain, contact Samaritans at 116-123 or by email jo@samaritans.org. Calls are free and confidential. Or call Papyrus on +44 800 068 4141 (9 a.m. to midnight), or message Young Minds: SMS YM at 85258. You can also find a list of additional resources at Mind.org.uk.

In the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Chelsea FC rocked by concerns, complaints and suicide
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