Thursday, 29 Jul 2021

More than 100 staff leave Blind and Low Vision NZ amid claims of bullying and service cuts

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 say many of their colleagues left due to poor culture at the Blind and Low Vision NZ.

Another former staff member said he had never experienced such a low level of morale.

This comes weeks after the Herald 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 at this point to “preserve the integrity of the independent review” but would welcome the opportunity to provide a full picture when it had concluded.

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 launched last year.

She said the new direction was developed in consultation with clients, donors, volunteers, staff and partner organisations and admitted it was a “big shift”.

“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 spoke on condition of anonymity, said she believed there was now a poor culture that left staff fearful of speaking up or even asking questions.

She was among a group of about 50 staff who called on union E Tū around last September to prepare and 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 like a family, a whānau, and the professionalism – everybody just worked like Trojans. I was just amazed and I was so proud to be part of it and the way that we all worked together to form that jigsaw puzzle of services that helped people thrive with blindness.”

In her opinion: “That has just all been destroyed. It’s just 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 for fear of retaliation.

She said she became too 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.

“For me, my career choice would have been to stay there for the rest of my career but I just felt that I was going under. I couldn’t do it any more. It just affected every aspect of my life.”

Another former staff member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that aside from the redundancies she 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 about client welfare for fear of being fired.

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

“You’re scared to say anything, you’re scared to question processes.”

The women also questioned Blind and Low Vision NZ’s latest 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 due to a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, is among those made redundant during restructuring.

He was a member of the Pacific services team and lost his job in October after almost 13 years at the organisation, split over two periods.

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 level of morale – just how low it is,” he said.

“I hate hearing the sadness and the uncertainty in the voices of a lot of my friends that I really care about.”

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

Te’o said he was aware of bullying.

He said that in his opinion, “I would be silly to say it doesn’t exist in the organisation”.

He believed staff were being bullied into submission and were too scared to speak up.

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 available to them and a number of Pacific Island men last year started to learn to read and write in braille, he said.

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

Te’o also said a large chunk of the organisation’s visually impaired staff had been made redundant.

If the management remained the same he said he’d likely remove himself from the charity’s membership.

“I just hate where this organisation is heading. I don’t think it’s a direction that’s very inclusive.

“The human element of Blind and Low Vision NZ is surely getting squeezed out.”

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