Julia Bockett was HR manager at the Commission for Financial Capability for 14 months. She dealt with many of the staff who say they were bullied by the Commissioner Diane Maxwell. 

She spoke to Newsroom’s Melanie Reid.

Bockett: I was employed as the Manager People and Culture two days a week. I was in the role for 14 months. 

Reid: A lot of people have told us they told you at their exit interview about being bullied by Diane Maxwell and that was the reason they were leaving. 

Bockett: Before I started no one was doing exit interviews. I started them soon after I joined. A critical part of building trust in these situations is to assure the employee of complete confidentiality should they not wish their feedback to be provided verbatim back to the organisation. Not one person I interviewed, felt comfortable with me disclosing anything other than high level themes. Some didn’t even want that. So I’m stuck in this weird space of having to maintain trust with the employees and meet my obligations under the privacy act, yet also escalate the issue to protect all employees and make sure we provided a safe and supportive work environment. 

So I raised at a lead team level, this included Diane, that there were significant leadership failings which needed to be addressed. At the same time I also raised the issue of high staff turnover. I made a point of including every lead team member in these discussions. The nervousness and tension during these discussions was almost unbearable. Diane simply denied there was any problem. Denied that the turnover was seriously bad. And made it quite clear that anyone who left ‘needed to go’.

I prepared a report on the exit interview themes focusing on Diane’s leadership behaviours. But was conscious my approach had to be carefully constructed.  This was an extremely challenging conversation. Particularly given Diane made a point of starting off our meeting telling me how unprofessional I was talking about the organisational cost of turnover, and that in her entire career she’d never worked with an HR Manager who could be so unconsidered in their approach. 

It is really unclear in the organisation who you can escalate issues to. And at this point no one had made a formal complaint so technically all I had was the turnover stats, and these were already reported on to MBIE. But who was actually looking at them? I tried to find out who looked at them, no one knew.  I tried to work out who I could raise this with at the State Services Commission but was told unless a formal complaint was made they wouldn’t be interested. It was totally impossible.

Diane wasn’t getting any people leadership feedback from anybody in a role that was senior to her – that I was aware of. 

“What I’d like to see is there’s some change with the way the Government manages these organisations because that is the true failing. Sure Dianne’s got some real people leadership failings, but the real leadership failing was that there was no one leading her. There was no one looking really closely at how the organisation was performing as a whole. 

“There was no balance scorecard approach. We’d do this really fancy annual report and it looks beautiful and we’d tick all these boxes, but no one really seemed to be looking at what was going on with the people inside the organisation.

Reid: Was there anyone else you could go to? 

Bockett: It felt really risky just ringing around government officials trying to find someone who could help. I  wanted to ensure that things were taken seriously but this is incredibly difficult when no one made a formal complaint.  So I had no substantial evidence other than turn over. 

Reid  Why do you think people didn’t stand up to her more?

Fear. She left people doubting their own abilities. People have careers to protect, mortgages to pay. It was better to fly under the radar, than stick your neck out and risk getting it cut off.

In saying that there were individuals who stood up to her, or tried to, but it never resulted in any true behaviour change.  

If you look at my role as an example, and the chain of events after I tabled the turnover and leadership issues, you can see why people decided leaving was easier than challenging her behaviour. I was excluded from sitting in on the lead team meetings shortly after, I was told to stop doing exit interviews, I was told to stop meeting with people behind closed doors, I was then told I was no longer reporting to her (Diane) and would report to a new role of Operations Manager, which I was then asked to recruit. 

And don’t get me wrong, change happens all the time and I accept that as a normal part of operational improvements, but timing wise I could see how it was all playing out for me.

I was completely side-lined.

But I don’t want this to become about me. I want it to become about a complete failure of governance across a tax payer funded organisation. And the wastage that poor leadership can create in churning talented staff.  Who wants to pay for that? I certainly don’t.

Reid: Diane Maxwell says she has never had a personal grievance case against her and there are/were lots of avenues to pursue  if people were unhappy.

Bockett: Yes that’s right, I’m not aware of any PGs. I am unaware of what the other ‘avenues’ were. I put in an EAP programme as a support mechanism for staff but this wasn’t an avenue for resolution.

The only avenue people had were lead team members and myself. But we all reported to Diane. All roads seemed to lead to Diane.

Melanie Reid is Newsroom's lead investigations editor.

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