Major review finds bullying, sexual discrimination and racism at Lyttelton Port Company

Warning: This story contains discussion of suicide

A major review prompted by a Newshub investigation has found evidence of bullying, intimidation, racism, sexual discrimination and a lack of transparency around decision-making at Lyttelton Port Company (LPC).

Newshub's investigation was centred on LPC worker Katrina Hey who took her own life in December 2019. It went on to expose accusations of widespread bullying, favouritism and 'old school' conduct before prompting two inquiries, with their results released on Wednesday morning.

The independent review into workplace culture, led by Maria Dew QC, has highlighted a culture of fear among workers at the South Island's biggest port.

The results identified eight key factors contributing to high levels of distress, health impacts, loss of confidence and resignations including normalised offensive behaviour, communication breakdowns, 'them and us' barriers and management voids.

Of the 97 current and former employees or contractors, union representatives, LPC directors and executives employed from January 2017 onwards, it was revealed:

  • 81 percent reported bullying concerns

  • 90 percent of non-European interviewees said racism was an issue

  • Employees had been forced out of jobs because of racism

  • 42 percent of women reported sexist behaviour

  • 31 percent of men reported seeing sexist behaviours by other men towards women

  • 65 percent raised concern about some form of unfair selection or work allocation 

The report included quotes from interviews made by participants, selected because they represent themes heard over and over. These included:

  • "There is an underlying sort of current of casual sexism, racism, homophobia there and it's difficult to pinpoint specific occasions because they just happen so frequently"

  • "I was so shattered by this bullying I had to leave, but I wanted to speak up. I was made to feel I had no professional skills, it wrecked my health"

  • "It's pretty regular that female cargo handlers' slightly higher-pitched voices are mocked over the radio publicly"

  • "You get mocking of ethnic accents, particularly Asian"

  • "The regular insult is 'queer c*nt' or 'homo', people don't realise it's homophobic"

  • "I am in the union but not pro-union, there is a lot of self-entitled behaviour and they are getting away with it. This culture breeds the bullying attitude"

The common bullying themes included a "highly-aggressive approach by both senior management and unions", managers failing to deal with abusive and hurtful language, staff laughing at offensive and belittling comments, and persistent negative and aggressive conduct.

One example of bullying included an incident in December 2019 when an anonymous note sent to an LPC employee stated: "You make our lives a misery, no one likes you". And this year, sarcastic written comments made about a new employee were left on an LPC newsletter introducing the new employee and left in an open workspace.

The review began in July 2020 and was completed in November after Newshub exposed claims that bullying was 'rife' and 'the tip of the iceberg' of issues within the company following Katrina Hey's daughter speaking out about her mum's experiences during her seven-year employment.

Katrina Hey died on Christmas Day last year, leaving behind a collection of internal emails and documents that leave hints to the stress she was experiencing at work.
Katrina Hey died on Christmas Day last year, leaving behind a collection of internal emails and documents that leave hints to the stress she was experiencing at work. Photo credit: Supplied.

Kassandra Hey maintains her mother's treatment while an employee of the company contributed to her death, claims that were investigated in the other report.

In it, employment lawyer Amy Keir states she was engaged to investigate allegations Katrina "suffered serious and sustained bullying" in the period that she was employed as a container controller for LPC from 2012 to 2019.

Her findings state Katrina's working arrangements "contributed to a challenging set of circumstances", she was working in a "high demand environment", "socially isolated over a long period" and "did not always have access to the same training support".

Keir suggested there were "ordinary reasonable communications that might have been better handled in person".

She indicated Katrina "genuinely believed she was mistreated by her manager and supervisor" and in relation to two events, found "unkind or unreasonable communications". However, she did not see evidence of repetition or a specific course of conduct directed at Katrina.

Keir stated two matters stood out to her at the conclusion of her investigation; that Katrina was isolated due to the nature of her role which made it difficult for LPC to understand her health, and LPC was "not well equipped to manage the circumstances presented to them" when Katrina returned to work in November 2019.

Keir is referring to when Katrina returned to work after making the first attempt on her life following a disciplinary meeting where she felt she was treated unfairly. Just a few weeks later she died after a second attempt.

Keir concludes her report stating "there was no evidence to support the allegation of serious and sustained bullying". 

In 2013, Katrina lodged a formal complaint about bullying at work.

"I feel sick at the thought of going into work and not knowing if I am going to be accused of doing something wrong," she wrote in an email to her union rep at the time.

"I don't want to be bullied or feel too scared to ask a question."

The complaint was dismissed, however, her family claim the bullying continued and Katrina started keeping records.

"No one would listen, no one would take it seriously. No one cared," Kassandra says.

LPC previously admitted there are cultural issues at LPC and "a complete transformation" is needed.
LPC previously admitted there are cultural issues at LPC and "a complete transformation" is needed. Photo credit: Getty

Keir's two-page executive summary makes no recommendations of changes the company can implement, however Dew's report lists 32 points across five "areas for action" within the 46-page document.

  • Persistent Dignity and Respect

  • Address Diversity and Inclusion

  • People Accountability and Investment

  • Address Immediate Conduct Concerns

  • Reduce 'Them and Us' Barriers

For Kassandra, who claims her mum was a victim of workplace bullying for years before her death on December 25 2019,  it's a step in the right direction.

She's never alleged her mum's suicide was as a result of bullying, as stated in Keir's report, however, she believes her treatment at work contributed to her negative mental state.

Throughout her employment, Katrina gathered an extensive collection of internal emails showing instances where she felt she was "treated differently" during her time at the company.

Further documents relate to complaints made about her experiences and reflect how incidents would affect her.

"My mum worked the night shift for almost eight years and throughout that time she would be receiving emails from management in the morning saying how badly she has done the night before," Kassandra says.

Kassandra says ongoing unfair decisions and mistreatment by her manager and team leader deeply impacted Katrina's self-confidence.

She says because of Katrina's "fragile", softly-spoken nature she was an easy target.

"They continuously ran her down," Kassandra believes.

When Newshub first published the family's concerns online, 14 workers came forward with harrowing claims, aligning strongly with the claims laid out in the formal inquiry.

A former senior manager said he quit after being diagnosed with depression. One worker said "it's like I am nothing" and it was "every man for himself". Another said, "bullying is rife".

One claimed to have been physically assaulted and a union rep said they were aware of 10 bullying complaints in the last four years alone.

A colleague who worked with Katrina told Newshub that she was great at her job, but was underappreciated, "treated poorly" and collected evidence to back herself.

LPC CEO Roger Gray says the results of the review "are sobering" and provide "a strong starting point for us to all work together to continue to change".

He says LPC will accept and implement all the review's 32 recommendations, which include specialist training for all LPC staff on appropriate workplace conduct, improving diversity and inclusion in the LPC workforce, improving accountability for poor staff conduct and reducing the 'them and us' barriers that exist between teams.

"This report gives us clear direction for change."