Chelsea rocked by fears, complaints and suicide

LONDON. Trouble mounts inside Chelsea month after busy month

Nearly a dozen members of the club’s marketing department said they expected their boss to scold them in front of colleagues. Others said they faced his wrath in a more humiliating way, ordered to get up and leave the staff meeting at the word of one person.

The pressure has taken its toll. By last year, several Chelsea employees had disappeared for weeks and sometimes months of sick leave. According to one employee, at least 10 employees from the department, which employs about 50 people, left the club altogether. Then, in early January, everyone’s beloved former employee committed suicide.

While it is not known if workplace pressure was to blame, his death stunned Chelsea staff, who came to regard him as a friend and authority. During conversations at a memorial service for him earlier this year, their feelings of shock and sadness turned to anger.

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

Amid mounting internal pressure to resolve issues, Chelsea hired a consultant this spring to conduct a so-called “cultural check” on the marketing department. But few employees were confident about the process: they were told that their workplace inspection would be overseen by a supervisor they believed was responsible for the biggest problems.

It’s hard to imagine a professional sports team whose staff have had to endure the kind of uncertainty Chelsea staff have faced this year.

The club world was turned upside down in March when the team’s longtime owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, was murdered. authorized by the British government just as he announced plans sell premier league club. Until this process was completed, everyone who worked at Chelsea – from players and coaches to managers and lower level employees – had to worry about how to do their job; whether they will still be paid for it; and whether their jobs will continue after a new owner is found.

Some of that uncertainty faded in May when a group led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Pain paid a record price for the acquisition of Chelsea and the most onerous restrictions imposed on the activities of the team were lifted. But while it was all playing out in the headlines, a more troubling situation was brewing behind the scenes.

The New York Times interviewed almost a dozen current and former Chelsea employees in writing this article. Speaking independently, everyone painted a picture of a dysfunctional working environment at Chelsea marked by unhappiness, intimidation and fear. But it was the January suicide death of Richard Bignell, the former head of Chelsea TV, that shed light on long-standing concerns about the environment in the team’s marketing department – a group of about 50 employees – and the behavior of its leader, Gary. twelve trees.

In a statement Wednesday, two days after The Times contacted the club about the staff allegations, Chelsea said its new board of directors had appointed “an external review team to investigate the allegations made by the previous owner”.

“The club’s new board of directors strongly believes in a work environment and corporate culture that empowers its employees and ensures they feel safe, engaged, valued and trustworthy,” the statement said.

Although the club stated that “the new owners have taken the first steps to create an atmosphere that is in line with our values”, it is not clear if the new board has taken any action in response to staff allegations against Twelvetree. The club said he was not available for comment.

While the Bignell family chose not to speak to The Times when contacted, nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees have spoken out about Twelvetree’s toxic workplace culture, which they say left many employees feeling humiliated. , intimidated, and sometimes even afraid to simply attend meetings.

The employees spoke on condition of anonymity because some of them still work for Chelsea or in football and feared retaliation or damage to their professional reputation by recounting their experiences publicly. But a coroner’s report, compiled after Bignell’s death in January and reviewed by The Times, links his suicide to “despair after losing his job.”

By March, under pressure following Bignell’s death and amid growing frustration among the colleagues and friends he had left behind, Chelsea hired an outside firm to study the culture within the department, as well as the intimidation allegations leveled by several employees against Twelvetree. But to the dismay of some employees, the club did not acknowledge that the check was related to his death or any specific complaint.

One employee who left Chelsea’s marketing department said that the Twelvetree experience had simply become too hard; fearing for his mental health, the employee left the club despite not finding another job. However, the experience was so depressing that the former employee described it in detail in writing to Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck. Others said they expressed similar concerns in conversations with other senior executives or in exit interviews with club staff. But little seems to have changed, aside from an employee churn that has become so commonplace that it has become an open secret among recruiters who sometimes refer applicants for open positions at Chelsea.

Few staff members were confident about the department’s audit once they learned that it was to be under the joint supervision of Tvelvetri, the head of the department, and outside consultants hired by Chelsea.

“It wasn’t going to solve problems, was it?” said the person asked to participate in the review. “How can it be if he is revisiting his own culture?”

The staff stated that they had not yet received any conclusions from the audit already completed and that no changes had taken place in working methods.

“I consider myself a pretty strong person and before joining Chelsea I never felt like I had concerns about my mental health,” said one former marketing staff member. “But pretty quickly after joining, I started sleeping badly and got worse and worse.”

According to several of his former colleagues, this anxiety became visible in Bignell. Bignell was popular club memberheading the Chelsea TV television operation. The channel was initially run by the club’s communications department before transitioning to marketing as part of a new digital strategy implemented by the club’s hierarchy.

The transition meant a profound change for Bignell, who ran a television channel for ten years and now had to shift his focus to creating digital content for social media accounts that were under the direction of the team’s marketing staff. Employees recalled that Bignell’s relationship with the Twelfth Tree was strained; Bignell, like others, struggled to cope with the marketing director’s management style, which could include harsh, yelling criticism of their work, which some employees said sometimes brought colleagues to tears.

The married father of two young daughters, Bignell, largely hid the anguish he experienced from his co-workers, employees said. They described him as a sunny, positive person, a colleague who was always ready to joke or listen. 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 in a mess,” said a colleague who ran into Bignell in the summer of 2021, around the time he went on sick leave. “He looked sick. He’s lost so much weight.”

Bignell returned to Chelsea in September and was abruptly sacked the next day. In early January, he committed suicide. team, in announcement of his death on his website, said that the “everyone loved” Bignell was “a very popular and highly respected member of the larger family of football and sports broadcasters”. In the meantime, a coroner’s report later found that his state of mind at the time of his death was related to his dismissal from Chelsea. “Richard was deeply troubled by anxiety, depression and despair after losing his job,” the report says.

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

Those who left say they are accustomed to providing emotional support to their remaining colleagues. For example, after attending a recent multi-employee exit party, the former Chelsea employee said she talked to so many people struggling with work life at work that she felt the event was also a therapy session.

Meanwhile, a new group of Chelsea owners said on Wednesday they had contacted Bignell’s relatives through the family’s lawyer. “Our heartfelt sympathies go out to all of Richard’s family,” the team said in a statement. “His departure was deeply felt by his fellow club members and the football community.”

Senior Chelsea officials have already spoken to the family, who have expressed concern over the circumstances of his death, with staff saying they continue to push for internal changes. But the sale of the club in May only brought new uncertainty.

As new owners take control of the team, the most powerful leaders of the old Chelsea regime are changing. Chief Executive Guy Lawrence, who runs the club’s day-to-day operations, and Buck, the outgoing chairman, were the most senior executives approached by employees with their 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 the UK, call Papyrus on +44 800 068 4141 (9am to midnight) or text Young Minds: text YUM to 85258. You can also find a list of additional resources at Mind.org.uk.

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