Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Climate of fear

Photo / Richard Robinson
Photo / Richard Robinson

Four Auckland Council managers have accused their boss of bullying behaviour which made life miserable for his staff. Super City reporter Bernard Orsman reports on the allegations and their aftermath

The atmosphere at the Three Kings branch of the Auckland Council's infrastructure and environmental services (IES) department became so "toxic" that a manager was very reluctant to take her newborn baby with her to attend a meeting shortly after his birth.

This story was highlighted by employment lawyer Penny Swarbrick when reporting on a complaint by four managers against their boss, John Dragicevich. She found that a climate of fear existed in the department.

"I accept that the climate of fear is not experienced by all staff. However, it does appear to be significant," Ms Swarbrick said in a 28-page confidential report for the council.

She noted that Mr Dragicevich commented that the "toxic" atmosphere related to the working relationship between the manager who had just had a baby and another colleague.

However, Ms Swarbrick said: "I do not accept this".

She said the manager was very frank about the difficulties she had with her colleague but was clear that part of the reason for the Three Kings office being "horrible" was Mr Dragicevich.

"She said it was a combination of JD and the others," Ms Swarbrick said.

The IES department, with 400 staff across more than 14 work sites, started like any other in the new Super City set-up; with a sense of excitement at bringing together stormwater, waste management and other staff from the eight former councils, under the leadership of Mr Dragicevich.

One complainant described the challenge of wanting to achieve, learn and grow and thrive under good leadership and mentoring.

"I am a loyal and committed employee and always give 200 per cent to the work I do and for the people and challenge I work for," the manager said.

Documents obtained by the Weekend Herald show it did not take long for Mr Dragicevich to stamp his "brusque" management style on the department and for staff morale to slide.

Tackled by one manager in September last year on allegations that he had bagged managers as "useless", Mr Dragicevich responded to the "myths, innuendo, and white-anting" by saying the "department has lifted its credibility from November 1 [when the Super City came into being] and it is still on the rise due to the talented managers and staff we have".

Little did he know that his behaviour was becoming a source of grave concern for four managers, who filed a 14-page joint complaint to human resources director Alan Brookbanks on October 4. They accused their boss of creating a climate of fear and not appearing to operate under any moral code, in order to protect his position within the council - just one step below the executive leadership team.

"He only cares about himself, his reputation and his survival.

"He constantly devalues staff and managers, and never takes personal responsibility for having created the dysfunctional management team and poor department culture that exists today.

"He stands for everything that local government should not be," the four managers said.

Under the headings "entrapment and constructive dismissal", "setting people up to fail", "threatening behaviour" and "isolating staff/managers", the four managers highlighted numerous cases of alleged behaviour by Mr Dragicevich against themselves and other staff, some of them junior.

They maintained he constantly described his staff as incompetent and judged staff or wrote them off on one small error.

One such case occurred when a staff member inadvertently left Mr Dragicevich off the invitation list to a stormwater seminar. He allegedly took this as an insult and told a manager that the staff member needed to be "put on watch" for not showing respect.

Ms Swarbrick upheld this complaint, saying Mr Dragicevich was deeply affronted by his omission from the invitation list and mentioned during an interview that he "still to this day" had not received an apology.

Another alleged tactic of Mr Dragicevich was getting his managers to gain the trust of other staff, and then breach that trust.

He allegedly asked one manager to get chatty with a staff member to find out what kind of discussions the staff member was having with councillor Wayne Walker, who chairs the environment and sustainability forum. Mr Dragicevich wanted to know if the staff member was obeying his instruction to report all discussions with politicians.

On another occasion, it was alleged he asked a senior manager to keep an eye on other senior managers because "he didn't trust them and wanted to know about the things they were doing behind his back".

Ms Swarbrick said Mr Dragicevich frankly acknowledged he asked his senior managers to report discussions with politicians to him, but this was the result of a directive from his boss, chief operating officer Patricia Reade.

In a separate complaint to Mr Brookbanks by one of the four managers, Mr Dragicevich allegedly interrupted a meeting where a manager was consoling a staff member who had just learned her father had died four hours earlier and proceeded to talk about another matter.

The manager explained that the woman's father had died, to which Mr Dragicevich allegedly turned to the woman and said, "what of?" She replied "heart attack", to which he allegedly responded "was he overweight?"

Following the complaints, Mr Dragicevich's attitude towards staff reportedly improved and he started being nice to people, turning up to meetings and not making late night phone calls.

The four complainants, however, told Ms Swarbrick that they did not consider the changes were sustainable.

Medical records and documents show that one of the complainants alleged work-related stress from working with Mr Dragicevich.

The manager was one of three staff on the stormwater unit's accident/incident summary for May who reported work-related stress and receiving specialist medical help. The other two did not give a reason for their illnesses.

A note at the bottom of the summary said the council's health and safety manager, Syd Sykes, said the cases should not be recorded on personal health and safety report forms or entered in the council's health and safety system called "vault" while he dealt with them.

One of the three did fill out a personal health and safety report form and sent it to Mr Sykes, who warned human resource advisory manager Don Sharp that it did "not read well".

Mr Sykes said: "He states that part of the cause of his stress is bullying? Before I enter this into vault I want to confirm this with you, as it is not a pretty picture."

The report form said Mr Dragicevich had regularly bullied him and other staff over 18 months and he [the manager] lacked support from senior management.

Physiological and other affects on the report form included thyroid malfunction, trauma, sleep disruption, mood swings, anxiety and tearfulness, a punctured disk and numbness on the left leg.

Documents show that Mr Dragicevich was extremely concerned at the manager's "mental state and the risk to him and the organisation".

Mr Dragicevich was also concerned that the manager was reporting stress among his managers, telling Ms Reade and human resources staff by email "it is our role to throw a calm blanket over the heightened state of angst for some staff".

The manager took sick leave and was off work for four weeks during which time he attended five sessions with a psychologist. When he returned to work on June 5, he learned there had been a workshop of team leaders on May 15, where meeting minutes had been circulated containing adverse comments about him.

Fourteen people who attended the workshop signed a memo saying the comments in the minutes about the manager were "simply not true".

One member of the stormwater unit emailed Mr Brookbanks to say the minutes had "created a potential situation of mistrust and belief that there is an active agenda to discredit" the manager.

When the manager raised the issue of the minutes in a meeting with Ms Reade on June 5, she reportedly told him if he wanted to take the matter further he should investigate it himself.

The manager provided a summary of his finding to human resources business partner Anna Lissaman, on June 7, but it is not known what, if any, action she or Ms Reade took to investigate the case of the council minutes.

- NZ Herald

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