LONDON – Month after stressful month, problems piled up within Chelsea FC
Nearly a dozen employees of the club’s marketing department said they expected to be verbally abused by their boss in front of colleagues. Others said they faced his wrath in more humiliating ways, ordering him to get up and leave staff meetings at the word of a single man.
The pressure took its toll. Last year, several Chelsea employees disappeared after weeks or sometimes months of medical leave. At least 10 staff members – from a department of about 50 people – had left the club altogether, one employee said. Then, in early January, a beloved former staff member committed suicide.
While it’s not known if the workload was the cause, his death stunned Chelsea staff who had come to regard him as a friend and sounding board. During conversations at a memorial service for him earlier this year, their feelings of shock and sadness gave way to anger.
“It should never have happened,” said one employee.
Amid mounting internal pressure to address the issues, Chelsea hired a consultancy this spring to conduct what was described as a “cultural assessment” of the marketing department. Few employees had confidence in the process: The review of their workplace, they were told, would be overseen by the supervisor who they believed was the source of the worst problems.
It’s hard to imagine a professional sports team whose staff have endured the kind of uncertainty Chelsea’s 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 to sell the Premier League club. Until that process was completed, those who worked for Chelsea – from players and coaches to executives and junior staff – had to worry about how to do their jobs; whether they would still be paid for it; and whether their jobs would still exist if a new owner had been found.
Some of that uncertainty dissipated in May, when a group led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly paid a record price to take over Chelsea and the toughest restrictions on the team’s operations were lifted. But while all that was in the headlines, a more troubling situation raged behind the scenes.
DailyExpertNews interviewed nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees in reporting this article. Independently, they all portrayed a dysfunctional work environment at Chelsea, characterized by unhappiness, intimidation and fear. But it was the suicide by suicide in January of Richard Bignell, the former head of Chelsea TV, that exposed long-standing concerns about the environment within the team’s marketing department – a group of about 50 employees – and the behavior of its leader. , Gary Twelve Tree.
In a statement on Wednesday, two days after The Times contacted the club about the employees’ allegations, Chelsea said the new board had “appointed an outside review team to investigate the allegations leveled under the previous ownership”.
“The club’s new board believes strongly in a work environment and corporate culture that empowers and makes its employees feel safe, involved, valued and trusted,” the statement said.
While the club said “first steps have been taken by the new owners to create an environment consistent with our values”, it is unclear whether the new board has taken action in response to employee allegations against Twelvetree . The club said it could not be reached for comment.
While Bignell’s family chose not to speak to The Times when approached, nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees spoke of a toxic work culture under Twelvetree, which they said saw many staff members belittled, bullied and sometimes even scared. only had to 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 reputation by sharing their experiences publicly. But a coroner’s report, prepared after Bignell’s death in January and reviewed by The Times, linked his suicide to “despair after losing his job.”
In March, under pressure after Bignell’s death and amid growing frustration among colleagues and friends he had left behind, Chelsea hired an outside firm to investigate the culture within the department, as well as the bullying allegations raised by several employees. against Twelvetree. But to the frustration of some employees, the club has not acknowledged that the review was related to his death or to a specific complaint.
An employee who left Chelsea’s marketing department said that the experience of working for Twelvetree simply became too much; fearing for their sanity, the employee left the club despite not finding other work. However, the experience had been so harrowing that the former employee explained 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 club staff. But little seemed to change except a stream of employees that had become so common that it was an open secret among recruiters that sometimes led candidates to job openings at Chelsea.
Few employees had confidence in the department’s assessment when they learned that it would be jointly audited by Twelvetree, the department head, and the outside consultants Chelsea had hired.
“It wasn’t going to allay the worry, was it?” said one person asked to participate in the assessment. “What would it be like if he reconsidered his own culture?”
Employees said they have not yet received conclusions from the now completed assessment and that there are no changes to working practices.
“I consider myself to be a pretty strong person and before working with Chelsea I never felt worried about my mental health,” said a former member of the marketing department. “But pretty soon after I joined, I wasn’t sleeping well and it kept getting worse.”
That fear became apparent in Bignell, according to some of his former colleagues. Bignell had been a popular member of the club and had run the Chelsea TV television operation. The channel was initially managed by the club’s communications department before transitioning to marketing as part of a new digital strategy implemented by the club’s hierarchy.
The move marked significant changes for Bignell, who had run a television channel for ten years and now had to shift his focus to producing digital content for social media, accounts led by the team’s marketing staff. Bignell’s relationship with Twelvetree, employees recalled, was fraught; Bignell, like others, struggled with the marketing head’s management style, which included biting, yelling critiques of their work that, some employees said, sometimes left colleagues in tears.
Bignell, a married father of two young daughters, largely hid the pain he felt from his colleagues, employees said. They described him as a sunny, positive attitude, a colleague who was always ready to joke or lend a listening ear. But gradually, according to people who knew him, his physical condition had 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 was going on medical leave. “He looked sick. He had lost so much weight.”
Bignell returned to Chelsea in September and was abruptly fired the following day. In early January, he took his life. In announcing his passing on its website, the team said the “beloved” Bignell was “a very popular and hugely respected member of the wider football and sports broadcasting family.” The coroner’s report later linked his state of mind at the time of his death with his dismissal from Chelsea. “Richard was deeply plagued with anxiety, depression and despair after losing his job,” the report said.
A constant exodus
Even after Bignell’s death and the club’s cultural evaluation, Chelsea’s marketing staff continued to lose workers.
Those who have left say that they have now become accustomed to emotionally supporting the colleagues who have stayed. For example, after attending a recent party that marked the departure of several employees, a former Chelsea employee said she spoke to so many people struggling with life at work that she felt the event had doubled as a therapy session. .
Chelsea’s new ownership group said on Wednesday it had reached out to Bignell’s relatives through the family’s lawyer. “Our hearts go out to all of Richard’s family,” the team said. “His passing has been deeply felt by his colleagues at the club and throughout the football community.”
Senior Chelsea officials had already spoken to the family, who had expressed concern about the circumstances of his death, and employees said they have continued to push for changes internally. But the sale of the club in May has only brought new uncertainty.
As the new owners take charge of the team, the most powerful leaders of Chelsea’s old regime are replaced. Chief executive Guy Laurence, who runs the day-to-day running of the club, and Buck, the outgoing chairman, were the top leaders to whom employees contacted with concerns about working conditions.
Now both are among those who will leave.
If you have suicidal thoughts, the following organizations can help you.
In the UK, call Papyrus on +44 800 068 4141 (9am to midnight), or message Young Minds: SMS YM to 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†