Herald on Sunday

‘We were a family. It’s been destroyed’

Claims of low morale amid departure of more than 100 staff from charity for the blind

- Amy Wiggins

More than 100 staff have left one of the country’s biggest charities in the past 18 months amid claims of bullying and service cuts.

Two former staff members say many of their colleagues left because of poor culture at Blind and Low Vision NZ. Another said he had never experience­d such low level morale.

The Herald recently revealed Blind and Low Vision New Zealand was launching an independen­t “culture review” because of complaints about the treatment of clients and employees.

A former staff member at Blind and Low Vision NZ claimed to be aware of 98 resignatio­ns, redundanci­es or terminatio­ns between December 2019 and the end of April this year.

Since then former staff said the organisati­on’s counsellor­s had also been made redundant in the latest of a series of restructur­es.

The charity reported employing 200 full-time and 50 part-time staff at the end of June 2020, compared with 210 full-time and 115 part-time staff the year before.

Blind and Low Vision NZ chief executive John Mulka said he was unable to comment to “preserve the integrity of the independen­t review” but would welcome the chance to provide a full picture.

Judy Small, who chairs its governing body, the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind, said there had been a “period of change” as the organisati­on adapted to a new strategic direction. She said this was developed in consultati­on with clients, donors, volunteers, staff and partner organisati­ons.

“The RNZFB board are confident that this culture review will give staff the opportunit­y to help shape a new culture that fits the new direction, and brings all staff along on the journey so that they are empowered to continue to drive positive change in the community,” she said.

But a former staff

member, who wished to be anonymous, believed there was now a culture that made staff fearful of speaking up.

She was among a group of about 50 staff who called on union E tu¯ around last September to submit a letter to the board saying staff did not feel safe at work and highlighte­d issues in the organisati­on’s culture.

She said there was an “amazing workplace culture” when she landed her dream job at the charity but believed that no longer existed.

“We were family, a wha¯nau. And the profession­alism — everybody worked like Trojans. I was so proud to be part of it. That has just all been destroyed. It’s been horrendous.”

The woman believed staff were picked on in front of colleagues and she felt people became fearful of raising concerns about the level of service being provided to clients.

She said she became scared to go to the bathroom at work for fear of running into a particular manager.

“I feel like I’ve just left an abusive relationsh­ip. I was so affected by it — my sleep, my family life, my hobbies. My choice would have been to stay there for the rest of my career but I just felt I was going under. I couldn’t do it any more.”

Another former staff member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, believed many people left because they could no longer tolerate the atmosphere.

She claimed to also be aware of instances where lawyers had been involved in how employment ended.

She considered there was a culture of bullying that made people too afraid to voice concerns.

“I came out of an emotionall­y abusive relationsh­ip and it reminds me very much of that. You start doubting yourself and you’re scared to say anything. You’re basically pleading for them to like you.”

The women also questioned Blind and Low Vision NZ’s decision to outsource counsellin­g to an employee-assistance programme where counsellor­s were not trained in the nuances of vision loss.

Daniel Te’o did not think clients would get the same service through outsourcin­g. Te’o, who lost his sight because of retinitis pigmentosa, is among those made redundant. He was a member of the Pacific services team and lost his job in October after almost 13 years at the organisati­on.

Last year his team was cut from five staff to two, he said.

Te’o thought the culture at the organisati­on had gone downhill significan­tly in the past 18 months.

“I’ve never experience­d such a low level of morale, ” he said. “I hate hearing the sadness and uncertaint­y in the voices of a lot of my friends that I care about.”

He said the “tone” and “personalit­y” from management had changed and it was now unclear what was expected of staff.

Te’o said he was aware of bullying but it was the service provided to clients that would really suffer from the cuts.

Before the restructur­e Pacific clients were being introduced to things that had never been offered or made available to them and a number of Pacific Island men last year started to learn braille, he said.

“I just feel like Blind and Low Vision NZ has taken a step backwards for this community.”

If the management remained the same he said he’d likely leave the charity’s membership.

“I just hate where this organisati­on is heading. The human element of Blind and Low Vision NZ is surely getting squeezed out.”

I feel like I’ve just left an abusive relationsh­ip. I was so affected by it — my sleep, my family life, my hobbies.

Former staff member

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