LONDON — Month after stressful month, problems mounted within 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 had met their anger in more humiliating ways, ordering them to stand up and leave staff meetings on one man’s word.
The pressure took its toll. By last year, several Chelsea employees had been missing for weeks, or sometimes months, of medical leave. At least 10 staff members, from a department that employs about 50 people, had left the club entirely, an employee said. Then, in early January, a much-loved former staff member committed suicide.
While it is unknown if workplace pressure was to blame, his death shocked 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, his sense of shock and sadness gave way to anger.
“It should never have happened,” said one employee.
Amid mounting internal pressure to address the issues, this spring Chelsea hired a consultancy to carry out what was described as a “cultural review” of the marketing department. But few staff members had confidence in the process: they were told that her workplace review would be overseen by the executive, whom they considered to blame for the worst of her problems.
It’s hard to think of a professional sports team whose employees have had to endure 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 former 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 complete, those who worked for Chelsea, from players and managers to executives and lower-level staff, worried about how to get their jobs done; if they would still be paid for it; and whether his works would continue to exist once a new owner was 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 the team’s business were lifted. But while all of that was playing out in the headlines, a more worrying situation was brewing behind the scenes.
The New York Times interviewed nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees to report on this article. Speaking independently, they all painted a picture of a dysfunctional work environment in Chelsea marked by unhappiness, intimidation and fear. But it was the suicide death in January of Richard Bignell, the former boss of Chelsea TV, that brought to light long-standing concerns about the atmosphere within the team’s marketing department, a group of about 50 employees, and the behavior of their leader, Gary. Twelve trees.
In a statement on Wednesday, two days after The Times contacted the club about the employee allegations, Chelsea said its new board had appointed “an external review team to investigate allegations that have been made under previous ownership.” .
“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, included, valued and trusted,” the statement said.
While the club said “initial steps have been taken by the new owners to instill an environment consistent with our values”, it is unclear whether the new board has taken any action in response to the staff members’ allegations against Twelvetree. The club said it was not available for comment.
While Bignell’s family chose not to speak to The Times when contacted, nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees spoke of a toxic work culture under Twelvetree that they said made many staff feel slighted, intimidated and sometimes even afraid to simply attend meetings.
The employees spoke on condition of anonymity because some still work at Chelsea or in football and feared retaliation or damage to their professional reputations by detailing their experiences publicly. But a coroner’s report compiled after Bignell’s death in January and reviewed by The Times linked his suicide to “despair following the loss of his job.”
In March, under pressure after Bignell’s death and amid mounting frustration among colleagues and friends he had left behind, Chelsea hired an outside firm to investigate the culture within the department, as well as allegations of bullying made by several employees against Twelvetree. But to the frustration of some employees, the club did not acknowledge that the review was related to her death or any specific complaint.
A staff member who left Chelsea’s marketing department said the experience of working for Twelvetree simply became too much to bear; Fearing for his mental health, the employee resigned from the club despite not being able to get another job. However, the experience had been so harrowing that the former employee detailed it in writing to Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck. Others said they raised similar concerns in communications with other top executives or in exit interviews with the club’s human resources staff. But little seemed to change beyond an employee turnover that had become so common it was an open secret among recruiters who sometimes directed candidates to open positions at Chelsea.
Few employees trusted the department’s review once they heard it would be jointly overseen by Twelvetree, the department head, and outside consultants hired by Chelsea.
“I wasn’t going to address the concerns, was I?” said one person who asked to participate in the review. “How could it be if you are checking your own culture?”
Staff members said they have not yet received any conclusions from the now completed review and there have been no changes to work practices.
“I consider myself a pretty strong person and before working with Chelsea I never felt like I was worried about my mental health,” said a former member of the marketing department. “But pretty quickly after I joined, I wasn’t sleeping well and it just got worse and worse.”
That anxiety was visible in Bignell, according to several of his former teammates. Bignell had been a popular member of the club, running its television operation, Chelsea TV. Initially, the channel was run by the club’s communication department before moving to marketing as part of a new digital strategy implemented by the club’s hierarchy.
The move meant profound changes for Bignell, who had spent a decade running a TV station and now had to shift his focus to producing digital content for social media, accounts that were run by the team’s marketing staff. Bignell’s relationship with Twelvetree, staff members recalled, was strained; Bignell, like others, struggled to deal with the chief marketing officer’s management style, which could include scathing, yelling criticism of his work that some employees said sometimes brought his colleagues to tears.
Bignell, married and the father of two young daughters, largely hid his torment from his co-workers, employees said. They described him as having a cheerful and positive disposition, a colleague always ready to share a joke or lend an ear. But little by little, according to people who knew him, his physical condition had deteriorated markedly.
“The last time I saw him he was walking across Stamford Bridge and he was a mess,” said a colleague who ran into Bignell in the summer of 2021, when he went on medical leave. “He looked sick. He had lost a lot of weight.”
Bignell returned to Chelsea in September and was abruptly sacked the next day. In early January, he took his own life. The team, announcing his death on his website, said the “much-loved” Bignell was “a very popular and well-respected member of the football and sports broadcasting family in general.” Meanwhile, the coroner’s report linked his state of mind at the time of his death to Chelsea’s firing of him. “Richard was deeply troubled by anxiety, depression and despair following his job loss,” the report says.
An exodus in progress
Even after Bignell’s death and after the club’s cultural overhaul, Chelsea’s marketing staff have continued to lose employees.
Those who have left say they have now become accustomed to providing emotional support to colleagues who have remained. After attending a recent party marking the departure of several employees, for example, a former Chelsea staffer said he had spoken to so many people struggling with life at work that he felt the event had doubled as a therapy session.
Meanwhile, Chelsea’s new ownership group said Wednesday it had contacted Bignell’s relatives through the family’s attorney. “Our hearts go out to all of Richard’s family,” the team’s statement said. “His passing has been deeply felt by his colleagues at the club and throughout the football community.”
Senior Chelsea officials had already been speaking to the family, who had raised concerns about the circumstances of her death, and staff members said they continued to push internally for changes. But the sale of the club in May has only brought new uncertainties.
As new owners take control of the team, the most powerful leaders of the old Chelsea regime are being replaced. Chief Executive Officer Guy Laurence, who runs the day-to-day operations of the club, and Buck, the outgoing president, were the most senior leaders with whom staff members contacted with 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, call Papyrus on +44 800 068 4141 (9am-midnight) or send a message to Young Minds: text 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.