'World's most beautiful toxic waste dump' - Weta Digital employees claim sexism, bullying and harassment

Kristin Hall
Source: 1News

"The world's most beautiful toxic waste dump." That's how Weta Digital, New Zealand's Oscar award-winning visual effects company, has been described by a former staff member.

She's one of eight current and former Weta Digital employees who've told 1 NEWS about their experience at the company, which they say has issues with sexism, bullying, and harassment. 

It follows similar allegations revealed to 1 NEWS by current and former staff at sister company Weta Workshop in June .

The Weta Digital workers all spoke on the condition of anonymity, but many had similar stories.

Several workers described the existence of pornographic mailing lists, hosted on Weta Digital's intranet, which they say existed for many years.

Reports about the mailing lists date back to as early as 2002, and the lists allegedly existed until at least 2015.

One employee told 1 NEWS about her discomfort at being signed up to an email mailing list which sent out porn every Friday, and hearing her colleagues discussing the pornographic images at work.

"There was a tradition at the time called Porn Friday. Every Friday staff members would email round porn images to the whole team. 

"The first Friday I worked there I was so surprised, intimidated and uncomfortable. You could opt out of receiving them, which I did. 

"But there were still conversations amongst the team in my office every Friday about what images were sent round."

Another said there was a separate mailing list exclusively for porn. 

"There was a mailing list at Weta Digi called 'Caveman'. Men were offered a subscription to it. They could read and post porn on it, hosted by the company. 

"I remember seeing some of the runners reading it on computers in front of me while I was trying to work. And men bragging to me about the existence of the Caveman list, implying it backed up their rights to be douchebags."

It's alleged the size and volume of the pornographic images on the mailing lists meant IT systems had to be upgraded to ensure the lists could continue.

"Threads that were being reposted would often contain these quite large raw images or uncompressed images, or just the sheer amount of images in these mailing lists ... the mailing lists required a certain amount of resources as well which were becoming really problematic ... There certainly were accommodations made to ensure the availability of that list."

One worker says when the Caveman mailing list was eventually shut down, there was backlash.

"I do remember there were definitely women who explicitly went in and said they were uncomfortable, and they would have a kind of dismissive laugh back as in, 'If you don't like it, just don't see it. You don't need to get this.'... It got shut down, but there was quite a bit of pushback in terms of, 'This is not the Weta we are used to.'"

There are also multiple reports of a webpage also accessible via the company intranet which listed who in the company had slept with whom, with one woman saying she was told about it by a senior colleague.

"They had a system that stored the employees and where they come from. He told me that system used to show everyone in the company who they had hooked up with. It was some sort of map of all the people, which was really gross."

Current and former employees also reported issues with sexual harassment and bullying which came from senior colleagues or managers.

One woman told 1 NEWS she was introduced to a senior colleague when she was a junior employee, who became increasingly flirtatious with her.

"He would send me videos of things from his past ... and make comments how I was hot or cute or that he would like me and protect me, and help me get further in my career," she said.

She says she felt too vulnerable to complain about the senior colleague, especially after hearing about the mailing lists.

"You start and you hear that and think this is the kind of place where I work, I have to adapt to that."

Others said complaints about bullying weren't taken seriously. 

Five of the eight people 1 NEWS spoke to say they experienced bullying while at Weta Digital, or witnessed it happen to colleagues. 

Several say they experienced persistent disparaging and degrading comments, often from senior workmates, but nothing was done. 

One employee said she was regularly targeted by two team members who undermined her and her work.

"My manager did nothing about either of them, even when he saw it happen. I didn't feel like I had any space to say anything about either of them, or have an expectation that anything would happen. I was told more than once that no one ever got fired, just 'didn't have their contract renewed', so up to a year of waiting for even that one possible thing to possibly be done." 

Another says when he endured a similar experience and complained about it, no action was taken. 

"What I was told was, 'Sometimes there's managers here who shouldn't be managers.' There was sort of an acknowledgment of, 'There may be a reason why they shouldn't be managing, but we're not going to address it.'"

Another says she and multiple team members complained about bullying by a senior colleague, but nothing came of her complaints, which she says were played down. 

"I know that there were at least maybe three or four more people more senior than me that had problems with the same person. We talked to everybody, they talked to HR, nothing happened." 

Some say working at Weta Digital has had long-term effects on their mental health, but they persisted at the company because they'd worked hard to get jobs in the New Zealand film industry, where most people are contractors.

"It's a known fact that the film industry treats its workers like s***. Weta Digital is no exception. They work people until they burn out or quit. The culture is a mixture of boys club mentality, bullying gone wild and casual sexism ... I wouldn't recommend anyone work there," a former employee said.

Many staff spoke of the fear of blacklisting, and that speaking out about their experience would see them lose their highly sought-after jobs or reputation.

"Definitely there was the idea that if you piss the wrong person off, you wouldn't be able to come back and work," one said.

"They take people with stars in their eyes and burn them to husks, and know they can keep doing it because there's a line out the back just begging to get in," said another.

"It was the world's most beautiful toxic waste dump."

But they do hope speaking out would spark change.

"It is toxic and careless and wasteful and unkind ... and it's very hard for people to be happy in those work environments regardless of who they are, but it sure looks like it's been harder on women."

In a statement, Weta Digital told 1 NEWS it acknowledges there have been "historical behaviour issues" at the company, including sharing of inappropriate content and commentary.

"As soon as it was brought to management's attention, immediate steps were taken to stop this activity," a spokesperson said.

The company says the complaints "do not reflect the Weta Digital of today".

"We regret this happened and apologise for any distress it has caused."

Weta Digital says it now has "comprehensive policies and procedures" for supporting staff to come forward with concerns or complaints, which can be reported to managers, HR, volunteer crew advocates or an anonymous HR email address. 

"There is no room for inappropriate behaviour of any kind within the company. If crew members feel uncomfortable for any reason, we want to hear about it. All concerns are taken very seriously."

The revelations about Weta Digital come as an investigation is underway at sister company Weta Workshop as a result of a previous "historic" allegation regarding sexual harassment and unfair dismissal.

In June, 1 NEWS revealed allegations of sexual harassment, bullying, and a "toxic" culture by 11 current and former Weta Workshop staff.

Weta Workshop told 1 NEWS the investigation, which is being carried out by Hive Consulting, is still underway.

"The independent review is still on-going and we don't yet have an indication of when it will conclude," a spokesperson said.

"We'd like to receive the review as soon as possible – but it's equally important this is a comprehensive inquiry conducted independently of Weta Workshop."

Weta Digital and Weta Workshop are both part of the 'Weta Group' of production studios. 

Do you have more information about this story? Contact our reporter Kristin Hall at kristin.hall@tvnz.co.nz