Auckland Council has dealt with allegations of bullying by a manager. Photo / File
After more than six years at the helm of a department at Auckland Council, a manager was thanked by Mayor Phil Goff and councillors for her enormous contribution to the Super City at a farewell function.
What Goff and other councillors did not know was the manager had moved on following formal complaints spanning several years alleging she bullied members in her team.
One of her alleged victims, a junior staffer, told the Herald she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and couldn’t work for two-and-a-half years.
Another victim said: “When I left, I said to her ‘karma is a bitch and it will come round to bite you one day’.”
To rub salt into the wound for her alleged victims, the woman did not leave the council altogether. She left her managerial role, and a council committee chaired by Goff, appointed her to a part-time job paid by the council.
The Herald has spoken to four council staff members who alleged they had been screamed at and abused by the manager. The staffers felt let down by management and left the council with negotiated exits.
“I never thought it would turn out that I would be the one who didn’t have a job,” said a junior staff member.
The woman described working with the manager as one of the worst experiences of her life and that she felt crushed by it.
After having mediation with her manager, which the woman believed went “badly”, the staffer agreed to leave council with an exit settlement of three months’ pay.
“At the end of mediation I just came out totally shattered.”
She withdrew into herself, lived off savings and could not bring herself to go to the doctor. When she eventually saw a doctor after more than a year she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and stayed off work for another 12 months before beginning temping work to rebuild her confidence.
The woman said she originally loved working at the council and described her earlier manager as “one of the finest men I have ever met”. But things quickly changed when that manager was replaced by the woman.
She alleged the woman had a bullying attitude and screamed at her.
One time in a management meeting, a man who was having cancer treatment took a call on his phone and left the room. When he came back into the meeting he got a dressing down from the manager and told to never bring a phone into a meeting again, she alleged.
Two other former staff members alleged to the Herald they were “bullied to no end” by the manager.
The pair described the culture in the department as “toxic” and one of them said they went on antidepressant drugs to deal with the stress.
A fourth former staff member said her first bad experience with the manager occurred when she was sitting at her desk.
“She came and stood beside me and was screaming at me and I turned to her and said ‘are you talking to me’ and she said ‘yes I am’. I looked at her and thought wow and she said to me ‘in my office now’ and said ‘I will be there in a minute’ and she said ‘now’.”
The staff member said she set up a meeting to sort things out with the manager.
“I went into the room and the first thing she said to me was ‘I don’t owe you an apology’. I looked at her and said ‘so you think standing there screaming at a person you don’t need to apologise’ and she said ‘nah’,” the staffer alleged.
The staff member said she had a meeting with chief executive Stephen Town and told him she believed the manager was trouble and things could get worse down the line.
“The way he looked at me was like ‘I have heard this before’. He tried to say, ‘yes, we will look into it’, and I walked away feeling nothing is going to happen.”
Town, who left the council in July last year to become the inaugural chief executive of a new national polytechnic, said he would not be making any comment on staffing matters at the council.
The manager at the centre of the allegations did not wish to comment when approached by the Herald.
Auckland Council governance director Phil Wilson, who handled the investigations into the manager, said the allegations “were mostly upheld”.
“The appropriate action was taken as a consequence,” he said.
When asked if the mayor and councillors knew of her history of bullying before appointing her to a part-time role, Wilson said: “We cannot comment on individual employment matters”, adding her new job is not a people leader role.
When asked if the manager met one of the job’s criteria for having “the highest standard of professional and personal integrity”, Wilson said: “We cannot comment on individual employment matters.”
As part of the process to shortlist candidates for the part-time job, councillors Josephine Bartley and Shane Henderson were appointed to a selection panel to interview the candidates.
The two councillors said they were not aware of the allegations. Henderson, a lawyer, said he was not told during the appointment process and still did not know the details of workplace bullying.
Goff was also in the dark about the allegations of bullying when the matter came before the committee that approved the manager for a part-time job on the recommendation of the selection panel.
The selection panel did not provide any advice along those lines, he said.
One councillor, who did not want to be named, said bad relationship practices have taken place at the council for a long time.
The councillor was of the view that if there was a record of complaints and a negotiated exit then “the manager should never have been recommended”.
Employment lawyer Blair Scotland said he would be surprised if any large organisation, like Auckland Council, would not take allegations of bullying seriously and have the proper policies and processes in place to deal with complaints.
He said most organisations use the Worksafe definition of bullying and more often than not it is a difficult threshold to meet, but if it was an ongoing pattern there should be ever-increasing stern action.
“You would see the first warning, final warning, out the door,” he said.
Scotland said if an employee left the council there could be a confidential settlement with specific clauses about what could or could not be disclosed by the council in future recruitment processes, such as reference checks.
He said the Public Service Commission has issued guidance to Government departments about thinking twice before burying findings of misconduct and investigations into wrongdoing, but this does not apply to councils.
New council chief executive Jim Stabback has commissioned a mental wellbeing review following the tragic deaths of two staff in December.
The two deaths are unrelated to each other or the manager who left.
Jenny Gargiulo, a principal environment specialist, died on December 1 amid claims she had been bullied and harassed. The coroner is looking into her death, which a spokesman said was suspected to be self-inflicted.
A few days later, a member of the council leisure team lost his life in a similar tragic way.
The review will consider whether changes need to be made to the council’s policies, procedures and processes for dealing with the mental wellbeing of staff. The outcomes of the review will be made public.
The woman, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, said there has been a “total miscarriage of justice” for herself and other staff members in the department who battled bullying on a day-to-day basis.
“There was something wrong that it was allowed to carry on with no penalty for her, but a penalty for everybody else because I lost my job and was really good at it.
“I strongly believe in right and wrong and how people should be treated. I smile to everyone because you may not know what a difference it will make to their day.
“I expected much better behaviour from the council. I didn’t receive it at all,” she said.