Bullying claims from ex-Te Arawhiti staff rejected by organisation

Bullying and racism allegations made by former staff at Te Arawhiti, the office for Māori Crown Relations, have been rejected by the organisation.

It had the highest new-staff turnover rate of any core Government agency last year and a damning culture survey has added to its troubles.

A former staffer, who 1News has agreed not to name, left Te Arawhiti a year ago but he’s still scarred by the experience.

“Bullying was an ongoing issue at Te Arawhiti the whole time I was there. Because of the treatment I experienced there I went on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication.

“Sundays were the worst day of the week… I used to wish that I would wake up sick so I wouldn’t have to go to work the next day.”

His story is similar to others who worked there.

“My manager did a very good job at convincing me and several other people in the team that we were effectively worthless. She'd compare me to… a toddler.

“I wasn't even allowed to send any emails to anyone. I had to do up a draft and my manager had to review it, sign off on it, and then give me approval for me to send it off and she had to be cc'd into it.

“We would have fortnightly meetings... it felt like you were walking up to the executioner’s block. She'd make terrible comments about you as a worker. It happened publicly all the time.”

Te Arawhiti is responsible for overseeing the public sector’s relationship with Māori. A large unit within the organisation is dedicated to treaty settlement negotiations.

“Te Arawhiti would ask Māori staff to leave their whakapapa at the door,” the former staffer said.

“The thinking was, you're a neutral public servant, you are a blank slate, you shouldn’t bring that whakapapa with you because it could potentially be seen as a conflict of interest… It's a really awful thing to ask of someone.”

1News has obtained Te Arawhiti’s latest staff culture survey results.

Staff satisfaction has dropped in eight areas since 2019.

Last year, only 42 per cent of staff agreed inappropriate behaviour, including bullying and harassment, was taken seriously.

Just 44 per cent think communication is open and honest and just over half agreed people were treated fairly despite individual differences.

Chief executive Lil Anderson said other results were pleasing.

“I think it’s important… to look at the 2020 survey in full context and one of the things that struck me was that 87 per cent of staff felt really positive that Te Arawhiti lives by its values,” she said.

“It’s also important for me to acknowledge that sometimes the surveys bring out issues on areas we need to work on.”

She regretted how the former staffer who spoke to 1News was treated.

“What I can say is that I’m really sorry to that person who felt that way on leaving Te Arawhiti. I think it’s really important for us as an organisation to be able to work these things through while people are here rather than when people leave.

“In a really sincere way, I’m happy to sit down with him and have a korero about that.”

She doesn’t accept that bullying, harassment or racism are systemic problems, or that Māori are asked to leave their whakapapa at the door.

Māori Crown Relations Minister Kelvin Davis still has confidence in the organisation and wasn’t worried about the 30 per cent new-staff turnover rate last year.

“Māori staff are sought after in the public service. I would say that they've been poached by other agencies.”

According to ministerial briefing notes made by the chief executive, more than three quarters of staff who left last year were not Māori.

The organisation has now set-up an internal Te Arawhiti Positive Workplace Behaviour group to address inappropriate behaviour, and training is underway so staff can respond better to complaints.