LONDON — Month after stressful month, the issues mounted inside Chelsea F.C.
Almost a dozen employees of the club’s marketing department said they’d come to expect being berated by their boss in front of colleagues. Others said they’d faced his wrath in additional humiliating ways, ordered to arise and leave staff meetings on a single man’s word.
The pressure took its toll. By last 12 months, multiple Chelsea employees had vanished for weeks, or sometimes months, of medical leave. At the least 10 staff members — from a department that employs about 50 people — had left the club altogether, one worker said. Then, in early January, a popular former staff member killed himself.
While it’s unknown whether workplace pressure was responsible, his death stunned the Chelsea employees who had come to think about him a friend and sounding board. During conversations at a memorial service for him earlier this 12 months, their sense of shock and sadness gave method to anger.
“It should never have happened,” one worker said.
Amid growing internal pressure to deal with the issues, Chelsea this spring hired a consultancy to conduct what was described as a “cultural review” of the marketing department. But few staff members had confidence in the method: The review of their workplace, they were told, can be overseen by the manager who they felt was responsible for the worst of its problems.
It is tough to consider knowledgeable sports team whose employees have needed to endure the type of uncertainty that the staff at Chelsea has faced this 12 months.
The club’s world was turned the other way up in March, when the team’s longtime owner, the 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 complete, those working for Chelsea — from players and coaches to executives and lower-level staff members — were left to fret about tips on how to do their work; whether or not they would still be paid for it; and if their jobs would still exist once a recent owner was found.
A few of that uncertainty disappeared in May, when a gaggle led by the Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly paid a record price to amass Chelsea and essentially the most onerous restrictions placed on the team’s business were lifted. But as all that was playing out within the headlines, a more troubling situation was festering behind the scenes.
The Latest York Times interviewed almost a dozen current and former Chelsea employees in reporting this text. Speaking independently, all painted an image of a dysfunctional workplace environment at Chelsea marked by unhappiness, intimidation and fear. Nevertheless it was the death by suicide in January of Richard Bignell, the previous head of Chelsea TV, that dropped at light longstanding concerns concerning the environment contained in the team’s marketing department — a gaggle comprising roughly 50 employees — and the behavior of its leader, Gary Twelvetree.
In an announcement on Wednesday, two days after The Times contacted the club concerning the employees’ accusations, Chelsea said its recent board had appointed “an external review team to analyze the allegations which have been made under previous ownership.”
“The club’s recent board believes strongly in a workplace environment and company culture that empowers its employees and ensures they feel protected, included, valued and trusted,” the statement said.
While the club said “initial steps have been taken by the brand new owners to instill an environment consistent with our values,” it’s unclear if any motion has been taken by the brand new board in response to staff members’ allegations against Twelvetree. The club said he was unavailable for comment.
While Bignell’s family selected not to talk with The Times when contacted, almost a dozen current and former Chelsea employees spoke of a toxic workplace culture under Twelvetree that they said left many staff members feeling belittled, bullied and sometimes even scared of merely attending meetings.
The staff spoke on condition of anonymity because some still work at Chelsea, or in soccer, and feared retaliation or damage to their skilled reputations by detailing their experiences publicly. But a coroner’s report compiled after Bignell died in January and reviewed by The Times linked his suicide to “despair following the lack of his job.”
By March, under pressure after Bignell’s death and amid growing frustration among the many colleagues and friends he had left behind, Chelsea hired an outdoor firm to look into the culture contained in the department in addition to the accusations of bullying made by several employees against Twelvetree. But to the frustration of some employees, the club made no acknowledgment that the review was related to his death or any specific grievance.
One staff member who left the Chelsea marketing department said the experience of working for Twelvetree simply became an excessive amount of to take; fearing for his or her mental health, the worker quit the club despite not having lined up other employment. The experience had been so distressing, though, that the previous worker detailed it in writing to Chelsea’s 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 little looked as if it would change beyond a churn of employees that had develop into so common that it was an open secret amongst recruiters who sometimes directed candidates toward open positions at Chelsea.
Few employees had confidence within the review of the department once they heard it was to be jointly overseen by Twelvetree, the department head, and the surface consultants Chelsea hired.
“It was not going to deal with the concerns, was it?” said an individual asked to take part in the review. “How could it’s if he’s reviewing his own culture?”
Staff members said that they’ve yet to receive any conclusions from the now-completed review, and that there have been no changes to work practices.
“I consider myself to be quite a robust person and previously to working with Chelsea I never felt like I had concerns over my mental health,” said one former member of the marketing department. “But quite quickly after joining, I used to be not sleeping properly and it got worse and worse.”
That anxiety became visible in Bignell, in line with several of his former colleagues. Bignell had been a well-liked member of the club, heading its television operation, Chelsea TV. The channel had initially been run by the club’s communications department before moving into marketing as a part of a recent digital strategy implemented by the club’s hierarchy.
The switch meant profound changes for Bignell, who had spent a decade running a television channel and was now required to modify his focus to producing digital content for social media, accounts that were under the direction of the team’s marketing staff. Bignell’s relationship with Twelvetree, staff members recalled, was a fraught one; Bignell, like others, struggled to take care of the marketing head’s management style, which could include biting, shouted critiques of their work that, some employees said, sometimes left colleagues in tears.
A married father of two young daughters, Bignell largely hid the torment he was feeling from his co-workers, employees said. They described him as having a sunny, positive disposition, a colleague all the time able to share a joke or lend an ear. But regularly, in line with individuals who knew him, his physical condition had noticeably deteriorated.
“Last time I saw him he was walking around Stamford Bridge and he was a large number,” said a colleague who encountered Bignell in the summertime of 2021, across the time he left on medical leave. “He looked sick. He had lost a lot weight.”
Bignell returned to Chelsea in September and was abruptly fired the subsequent day. In early January, he took his life. The team, in announcing his death on its website, said the “much-loved” Bignell was “a highly regarded and hugely respected member of the broader football and sports broadcasting family.” The coroner’s report, meanwhile, later linked his mind-set on the time of his death to his firing by Chelsea. “Richard was deeply troubled by anxiety, depression and despair following the lack of his job,” the report said.
An Ongoing Exodus
Even after Bignell’s death, and after the club’s cultural review, the Chelsea marketing staff has continued to lose employees.
Those that have departed say they’ve now develop into used to providing emotional support for the colleagues who’ve stayed on. After attending one recent party marking the departure of multiple employees, for instance, a former Chelsea staff member said she had spoken with so many individuals scuffling with life at work that she had felt the event had doubled as a therapy session.
Chelsea’s recent ownership group, meanwhile, said Wednesday that it has reached out to Bignell’s relatives through the family’s lawyer. “Our heart goes out to Richard’s entire family,” the team’s statement said. “His passing has been deeply felt by his colleagues on the club and across the football community.”
Senior Chelsea officials already had been speaking with the family, which had raised concerns concerning the circumstances of his death, and staff members said that they’ve continued to press internally for changes. However the sale of the club in May has only brought fresh uncertainty.
As the brand new owners take control of the team, essentially the most powerful leaders from Chelsea’s old regime are being replaced. The chief executive Guy Laurence, who runs the club’s day-to-day operations, and Buck, the outgoing chairman, were essentially the most senior leaders whom staff members contacted with their concerns about working conditions.
Now each are amongst those that will leave.
If you happen to are having thoughts of suicide, the next organizations will help.
In Britain, call Papyrus at +44 800 068 4141 (9 a.m. to midnight), or message Young Minds: text YM to 85258. You may also find an inventory of additional resources on Mind.org.uk.
In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You could find an inventory of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.