Four former staff at the Health and Disability Commissioner's office say they quit because of what they describe as a "toxic", bullying culture that at least one person lodged formal complaints about.
But Health and Disability Commissioner Anthony Hill says he is proud of the work his office does and that it has responded fairly when concerns have been raised by staff.
• Premium - Staff turnover at HDC because trained investigators sought after - Commissioner
• Urology delays put patients at 'substantial risk' - report
• Premium - Human rights case against Health and Disability Commissioner 'exceptional'
• Robert Love says HDC investigation into his late mother's rest home care is flawed
Three of the former workers have asked not to be identified, but all allege being bullied by managers at the office that was set up in 1994 to promote and protect patient rights.
They are speaking out after the Herald revealed 133 staff had left the office since 2012, an average of 19 each year.
One of the staff, based in the Auckland office, made complaints about two managers which the Herald has seen.
The first complaint, which the staffer tried to lodge as a personal grievance, related to comments made by a manager in front of colleagues criticising their performance in a way they claimed "publicly shamed and humiliated" them.
The manager apologised but the staffer felt the criticism was a deliberate attempt to undermine them and that the apology was insincere.
A senior manager, who witnessed the original comments and did not intervene, closed the investigation after the apology despite the staffer's protests at a meeting about the incident.
"... would we ever send out an apology from a doctor to one of our complainants that read: 'It was not my intention, I am sorry you feel that way?'," a transcript of the meeting shows the worker asked the senior manager.
"Do you think we would ever send such an apology out to a complainant at HDC?"
In the second complaint, centred on the senior manager, the staffer alleged multiple complaints by employees about bosses were routinely ignored and poor management had led to a "toxic work environment" and demotivated staff.
The worker sent the complaint to Minister of Health Dr David Clark and the State Services Commission.
He also raised concern about racism in the office, and about other members of the executive leadership team.
The employee added that constant staff turnover created backlogs in patient complaint investigations because a new person would need to be assigned to the file and get up to speed with it each time.
"They created a work environment where people didn't want to come to work, and some took time off to avoid coming in to work."
The staff member described an employee being reduced to tears compared to a manager who was celebrated for their work.
"It sort of nicely encapsulates and symbolises the dysfunction."
The second complaint prompted the HDC to hire a lawyer to review the first complaint process. The external reviewer found the HDC acted fairly.
The HDC told the worker it would undertake a staff engagement survey incorporating their broader concerns and follow up on issues raised.
However, it said there was not enough information to investigate the complaint against the senior manager. By then the staffer had already left, a year after starting the job.
They gave an exit interview and in the complaint said they were leaving exclusively because of the senior manager.
A former personal assistant in disability at the office, Juliana Carvalho, said she received a written warning when, while advocating for disabled access to an Auckland building, she was featured in a Herald article.
Carvalho claims that she was told she was not allowed to use her position at the HDC to publicly advocate for the disabled.
The Brazilian migrant, who was paralysed by Lupus at age 19, said the worst humiliation came when she arrived at a staff Christmas party to find there was no disabled access and she couldn't get into the event.
"I started crying. I had to be carried in by my colleagues and there's no dignity in that.
"This is the office of the Health and Disability Commissioner throwing a Christmas party at a building where there is no access for disabled people."
Another worker described the job as incredibly stressful.
"I had a really traumatic experience there and I know it wasn't isolated. There were colleagues who just disappeared, as in one day they're there, the next they weren't and nothing was said."
The former employee wanted to take a personal grievance but feared doing so would blacklist them from future jobs in the government sector.
The worker said they loved the job and their colleagues but claimed they were singled out by a direct manager.
"On one occasion that manager came into the toilet to say 'Hurry up, we've got a meeting. Are you coming? You need to get out now'.
"On another occasion I was given a substantial file that someone else had been working on for a long time and told 'You need to brief the Commissioner on this case in 10 minutes'.
"It was almost a foot-high file. It was very unusual behaviour."
The person claims there were inconsistent approaches to appointments for internal applicants, with some staff re-employed without any process, and others having to go through a full external application, interview and testing process.
"When I raised my concerns with [a senior manager] on the final day of my contract, they shut me down and I was invited to leave immediately.
"Not a word was said to other staff and my colleagues were left shocked and confused. If you stood up to them you were gone."
Two of those spoken to by the Herald said staff had key performance indicators built around closing as many complaints as possible per year.
A fourth ex worker said the office was "swamped with work" during his short stint there.
"I didn't receive any training or support for my role and that impacted on my ability to contribute. And when I did try and do that I wasn't appreciated.
"I was given files to run that I was expected to fully investigate with no training whatsoever."
The man referred to one of the senior managers as "egotistical" and called his own manager a "big bully".
"She wasn't minded to try and help people - she was just there to instruct them on what to do.
"She shot you down if you didn't do what she had expected. She wasn't receptive to new ideas and she was quite closed in her thinking."
He wanted to lodge a personal grievance and wrote a lengthy complaint but in the end decided it was easier to leave.
The worker called the office "toothless" when it came to justice for patients and claimed it protected providers over patient rights.
Hill said it was disappointing some former staff were unhappy about their experience at HDC but that he was "incredibly proud" of the work his team of professionals do to make "things better for their fellow New Zealanders".
"In any organisation, from time to time, people will raise concerns and when that has happened here we've tried to respond in a fair and respectful way," Hill said.
"At times, we've sought independent advice to ensure we are following a robust process.
"If our people have concerns, we want to hear that so we can do something about it. We say to the health system - every complaint is an opportunity to learn and we take the same approach.
"Any organisation can learn to do better and HDC is committed to doing so."
Hill denied the HDC was not working well calling it an "effective watchdog" for the health and disability sector, protecting people's rights under the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights.
The HDC received two personal grievances in the current financial year, from July 1 to present, but Hill would not elaborate on the outcomes.
When asked if any complaints had been made by staff against any members of the executive leadership team in the past seven years, Hill reiterated that when workplace issues arose the HDC made every effort to respond fairly.
Asked if any executive leadership team members had had responsibilities changed or been demoted to reflect complaints or problems within their team Hill said: "HDC has a highly capable leadership team whose roles and responsibilities have evolved over the years to reflect the changing needs of the organisation."
He said exit interviews were standard process at HDC but voluntary.
"In the latest financial year the most common reasons for leaving were career progression, higher salary, relocation or travel and study."
He said anecdotally there were five current staff who had resigned and returned at a later stage to work for the HDC.
Hill, who took over as Commissioner in 2010, denied key performance indicators were used to close consumer complaints.
"HDC wants to resolve people's complaints in a timely, fair manner. We do have expectations of our team to help us do this, including some individual and team targets."
In the 2009 Annual Report a consumer satisfaction survey showed 54 per cent of complainants were satisfied with the management of their complaint compared to 84 per cent of providers.
By 2015, the last time such a survey was undertaken by the HDC, there was no breakdown between complainants and providers - only that 65 per cent were satisfied.
A spokesman for the Minister of Health said Clark's powers of intervention in the HDC were tightly prescribed in the Health and Disability Commissioner's Act 1994.
"And given that we are dealing with what are really contested employment issues I don't think we're close to the threshold that the minister would invoke the powers that he has."
The powers include removing the Commissioner and initiating an inquiry.
In December last year the State Services Commission hired employment law specialist Maria Dew, QC, to investigate allegations of bullying against Retirement Commissioner Diane Maxwell.
Maxwell was eventually cleared of bullying and returned to work in May under increased monitoring, however her job ended in June after Commerce Minister Kris Faafoi said two terms was enough for one commissioner.