LONDON – After a stressful month, the problems mounted inside Chelsea FC
Almost a dozen employees of the club’s marketing department said they were expected to come by their boss in front of colleagues. Others said they had encountered his wrath in more humiliating ways, ordered to stand up and leave staff meetings at a single man’s word.
The pressure took its toll. By last year, multiple Chelsea employees had vanished 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 altogether, one employee said. Then, in early January, a well-liked former staff member killed himself.
While it’s unknown whether workplace pressure was to blame, his death stunned the Chelsea employees who had come to consider him 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.
“It should never have happened,” said one employee.
Amid growing internal pressure to address problems, Chelsea hired a consultancy this spring to describe what was described as a “cultural review” of the marketing department. But few staff members had the confidence in the process: The review of their workplace, they were told, would be overseen by the executive who they felt was responsible for the worst of its problems.
It is hard to think of a professional sports team whose employees have had to endure the kind of uncertainty that the staff at Chelsea has faced this year.
The club’s world was turned upside down 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 to 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 worry about how to do their work; whether they would still be paid for it; And if their jobs would still exist 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 placed on the team’s business were lifted. But as all that was playing out in the headlines, a more troubling situation was festering behind the scenes.
The New York Times interviewed almost a dozen current and former Chelsea employees in reporting this article. Speaking independently, all painted a picture of a dysfunctional workplace environment at Chelsea marked by unhappiness, intimidation and fear. But it was the death by suicide in January of Richard Bignell, the former head of Chelsea TV, that brought light concerns about the long-standing concern within the team’s marketing department – a group consisting of roughly 50 employees – and the behavior of its leader, Gary. Twelvetree.
In a statement on Wednesday, two days after The Times contacted the club about the employees’ accusations, Chelsea said its new board had “an external review team investigating allegations that have been made under previous ownership.”
“The club’s new board believes strongly in a workplace environment and corporate culture that empowers its employees and ensures they feel safe, included, valued and trusted,” the statement said.
While the club said “preliminary steps have been taken by the new owners to instill an environment consistent with our values,” it is unclear if any action has been taken by the new board in response to staff members’ allegations against Twelvetree. The club said he was unavailable for comment.
While Bignell’s family chose not to speak with The Times when contacted, nearly 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 fearful of attending meetings.
The employees spoke on condition of anonymity because some still work at Chelsea, or in soccer, and feared retaliation or loss by detailing their professional reputations 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 loss of his job.”
By March, under pressure following Bignell’s death and amid growing frustration among colleagues and friends who were left behind, Chelsea hired an outside firm to look into the department within the culture as well as bullying of accusations 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 complaint.
One staff member who left the Chelsea marketing department said Twelvetree simply became too much to take on; Fearing for their mental health, the employee quit the club despite not being lined up for other employment. The experience was so distressing, though, that the former employee 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 seemed to change beyond a churn of employees that had become so common that it was an open secret among recruiters who sometimes directed candidates toward open positions at Chelsea.
Few employees had confidence in the review department once they heard it was jointly overseen by Twelvetree, the department head, and outside consultants Chelsea.
“It wasn’t going to address the concerns, was it?” Said a person asked in the review. “How could it be if he is reviewing his own culture?”
Staff members said they have 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 strong person and dating to Chelsea I never felt like I had concerns over my mental health,” said a former member of the marketing department. “But quite quickly after joining, I was not sleeping properly and it got worse and worse.”
That anxiety became visible in Bignell, according to several of his former colleagues. Bignell has been a popular member of the club, heading its television operation, Chelsea TV. The channel has already been run by the club’s communications department before moving into marketing as part of a new digital strategy implemented by the club’s hierarchy.
The switch meant profound changes for Bignell, who spent a decade running a television channel and was now required to switch its 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; Others, like Bignell, struggled to deal with 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 was largely hid the torment he was feeling from his co-workers, employees said. They described him as having a sunny, 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 was noticeably deteriorated.
“The last time I saw him was walking around Stamford Bridge and he was a mess,” said a colleague who joined Bignell in the summer of 2021, around the time he left on medical leave. “He looked ill. He had lost so much weight. “
Bignell returned to Chelsea in September and was abruptly fired the next day. In early January, he took his life. The team, announcing his death on its website, said the “much-loved” Bignell was “a very popular and hugely respected member of the wider football and sports broadcasting family.” The coroner’s report, meanwhile, later linked his state of mind at the time of his death to his firing by Chelsea. “Richard was deeply troubled by anxiety, depression and despair following his loss of employment,” 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 who are departed say that they are now used to providing emotional support for the colleagues who are staying on. After attending a recent party marking the departure of multiple employees, for example, a former Chelsea staff member said she had spoken to so many people struggling at work that she felt the event was doubled as a therapy session.
Chelsea’s new 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. “He has been deeply felt by his colleagues at the club and throughout the football community.”
Senior Chelsea officials have already been speaking to the family, who raised concerns about the circumstances of his death, and staff members said they have continued to press internally for changes. But the sale of the club in May has only brought fresh uncertainty.
As the new owners take control of the team, 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 the most senior staff members who contacted staff members about their concerns about working conditions.
Now both are among those who will leave.