LONDON – After a month of tension, problems escalate within Chelsea FC
Nearly a dozen employees in the club’s marketing department said they expected their boss to reprimand them in front of their colleagues. Others said they countered his anger in more humiliating ways, ordering him to stand up and leave staff meetings based on one man’s word.
The pressure had its effect. By last year, many Chelsea employees had disappeared for weeks, or sometimes months, of sick leave. One employee said at least 10 employees – from a department that employs about 50 people – had left the club altogether. Then, in early January, a former Mehboob employee killed himself.
While it is not known if stress in the workplace was the cause, his death stunned Chelsea employees who came to regard him as a friend and a sounding board member. During talks at a memorial service for him earlier this year, their shock and sadness gave way to anger.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” said one employee.
Amid growing internal pressure to tackle the problems, this spring Chelsea hired a consulting firm to conduct what has been described as a “cultural review” of its marketing department. But few employees had confidence in the process: They were told that a review of their workplace would be overseen by the CEO, who they felt took responsibility for his worst problems.
It’s hard to think of a professional sports team whose staff have had to put up with the kind of uncertainty the Chelsea staff have faced this year.
The club’s world was turned upside down in March, when the British government punished the team’s longtime owner, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, when he announced plans to sell the Premier League club. Until this process was completed, those working with Chelsea – from players and coaches to executives and lower-level staff – were concerned about how to do their job; whether they will continue to pay for it; And if their jobs will still be there once a new owner is found.
Some of that uncertainty disappeared in May, when a group led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehle paid a record takeover of Chelsea and the toughest restrictions on the team’s business were lifted. But as it was all circulating in the headlines, there was an even more alarming situation building up behind the scenes.
The New York Times interviewed nearly a dozen current and former Chelsea employees to report on this article. Speaking independently, everyone painted a picture of a dysfunctional work environment in Chelsea marked by unhappiness, intimidation and fear. But it was the suicide death of Richard Bennell, the former head of Chelsea TV, in January that highlighted 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. duodenum.
In a statement on Wednesday, two days after The Times contacted the club about the staff accusations, Chelsea said its new board had appointed an “external review team to investigate allegations made under previous ownership”.
“The new club’s board of directors firmly believes in a workplace environment and company culture that empowers its employees and ensures that they feel safe, inclusive, 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 any action has been taken by the new board of directors in response to the staff’s allegations against Twelvetree. The club said it was not available for comment.
While the Bignell family chose not to speak with The Times when called, nearly a dozen current and former employees of Chelsea spoke out about the toxic workplace culture under the Twelvetree era which they said left many employees feeling belittled, intimidated and sometimes even fearful of Just attending meetings.
The staff spoke on condition of anonymity because some still work at Chelsea, or in football, and fear reprisals or damage to their professional reputation by publicly detailing their experiences. But a coroner’s report compiled after Bignell’s death in January and reviewed by The Times linked his suicide to “desperation after losing his job”.
By 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 look into the culture within the department as well as accusations of bullying by several employees against Twelvetree. But to the frustration of some staff, the club did not acknowledge that the review was related to his death or any specific complaint.
One employee who left Chelsea’s marketing department said the experience working at Twelvetree had simply become too much; Fearing for their mental health, the employee quit the club despite not lining up other jobs. The experience was very distressing, although the former employee provided details of it in writing to Chelsea’s president, Bruce Buck. Others said they had expressed similar concerns in communications with other senior executives or in exit interviews with the club’s human resources staff. But little seems to have changed beyond the staff run that has become so popular that it has been a secret among recruiters who sometimes direct candidates toward job openings at Chelsea.
Few of the staff would have trusted the department’s review once they heard it would be jointly overseen by Twelvetree, the department’s head, and external advisors who had been appointed at Chelsea.
“It won’t address the concerns, will it?” Said someone asked to participate in the review. “How is it if he’s reviewing his culture?”
Staff said they had not yet received any conclusions from the now-completed review, and that there had been no changes to work practices.
“I consider myself a very strong person and before working with Chelsea I never felt I had concerns about my mental health,” said a former member of the Marketing Department. “But after joining in so quickly, I wasn’t sleeping properly and it only got worse.”
This concern became apparent in Bennell, according to several of his former colleagues. was benell Popular member of the clubHe heads its television operation, Chelsea Television. The channel was initially run by the club’s communications department before moving on to marketing as part of a new digital strategy implemented by the club’s hierarchy.
The shift meant profound changes for Bignell, who had spent a decade running a television channel and was now required to shift his focus to producing digital content for social media, accounts that were under the direction of the team’s marketing team. The staff remember that Bennell’s relationship with Twelvetree was fraught. Bignell, like others, has struggled to deal with the chief marketing officer’s management style, which can include barbs, criticisms of their work, which, some employees said, sometimes left colleagues in tears.
Employees said Bennell, who is married and the father of two young daughters, largely hid the agony he was feeling from his co-workers. They described him as having a sunny and positive disposition, and the colleague always ready to share a joke or have their ears heard. But gradually, according to people who knew him, his physical condition deteriorated significantly.
“The last time I saw him he was walking around Stamford Bridge and he was a bit of a mess,” said a colleague who met Bennell in the summer of 2021, just as he was off on medical leave. “He looked sick. He lost a lot of weight.”
Bennell returned to Chelsea in September and was abruptly fired the next day. In early January, he committed suicide. team in Announcing his death on her website, said the “much-beloved” Bignell was “a very popular and well-respected member of the football and sports broadcasting family.” Meanwhile, a coroner’s report later linked his mental state at the time of his death to Chelsea shooting him. “Richard was deeply distressed by anxiety, depression and despair after losing his job,” the report said.
Even after Bennell’s death, and after the club’s cultural review, Chelsea’s marketing team continued to lose staff.
Those who left say they are now accustomed to providing emotional support to colleagues who remain in the service. After attending a recent party marking the departure of several employees, for example, a former Chelsea employee said she had spoken with so many individuals who struggle with life at work that she felt the event doubled as a therapy session.
Meanwhile, the new Chelsea property group said, on Wednesday, that it has reached out to Bennell’s relatives through the family’s attorney. “Our thoughts are with the entire Richard family,” the team’s statement said. “His death was deeply felt by his teammates at the club and across the football community.”
Top Chelsea officials had already spoken to the family, which raised concerns about the circumstances of his death, and staff said they continued to press internally for changes. But the sale of the club in May brought nothing but new uncertainty.
With the new owners taking control of the team, the most powerful leaders from the old Chelsea system are being replaced. CEO Guy Lawrence, who manages the club’s day-to-day operations, and Buck, the outgoing president, were among the top leaders staff contacted about their concerns about working conditions.
Now both are among those who will be leaving.