'It clicked - this is manipulation': C1 café whistleblower Levi Painter speaks out on the workplace bullying warning signs

Levi Painter (right) only worked one shift at C1 cafe in Christchurch, but her experience inspired her to speak up online - and she was met with an overwhelming response.
Levi Painter (right) only worked one shift at C1 cafe in Christchurch, but her experience inspired her to speak up online - and she was met with an overwhelming response. Photo credit: Supplied.

One in every five New Zealanders say they have been bullied in the workplace. In this two-part series, Newshub looks at what's compelling people to speak up and why it's necessary to spur change.   

The devastating impact mistreatment and abuse of power can have on employees has been laid bare by a young Kiwi who threw in her job and spoke out about what she saw as workplace bullying. 

When Levi Painter believed she had identified an atmosphere in crisis after working just one shift at Christchurch's C1 café, she blew the whistle on a "toxic environment" on Facebook which prompted an outpouring of support. 

Her actions saw an overwhelming reaction from other current and former employees who had worked under former boss Sam Crofskey and, in solidarity, shared their stories too. 

Each year, one in five employees in New Zealand workplaces report they have experienced bullying, according to the Mental Health Foundation, yet Painter could never have predicted just how widely others related to her story. 

She recently gave a one-time speech to raise awareness around the issue and the warning signs of bullying. 

A copy was supplied to Newshub before she entered an agreement effectively silencing her from ever talking about her experience at C1 again. 

The 19-year-old paints a picture of her view of Crofskey's attitude before explaining her frame of mind before she spoke out online about her experiences at C1. 

'I was invigorated' 

Feeling belittled and manipulated at the end of her first shift at C1, Painter decided to take action and write a post on a Facebook page called the University of Canterbury Student Association Noticeboard after quitting her job. 

The response triggered a number of people coming forward with similar and much worse experiences there - mainly younger women. 

"My emotions were everywhere. Feelings of anger surged as the comments flooded; disbelief as Facebook likes accumulated; sadness as the stories seeped," she says.  

"It was as if a thousand rioters were behind locked gates and I happened to stumble across a mysterious key, unknowingly unlocking a storm of repressed emotions." 

Painter's post on the UCSA Facebook noticeboard soon went viral.
Painter's post on the UCSA Facebook noticeboard soon went viral. Photo credit: Facebook/UCSA Noticeboard.

Many experiences were damning, alleging mistreatment of people under Crofskey's watch. Their bravery led to a change in the café's ownership and recognition from Crofskey that a step away from the hospitality industry was needed. 

Her post gained huge traction and she quickly learned that the problem had been going on for many years, impacting a significant number of people who spoke of being picked on and the vulnerability they felt while working at C1. 

"I was invigorated that so many people now had the courage to speak up," she says. 

"In a toxic working environment, our judgment plays tricks on us. It starts to become clouded by what is going on in our surroundings and we can begin to blame ourselves for the way we are being treated."  

'This is manipulation' 

Painter only encountered Crofskey three times; once in the interview, another time for a chat discussing whether she was right for the position or not, and during her first and last shift at C1. 

Though brief, she says she was given insight into what it was like to be mistreated, unable to fight a feeling that something was amiss from her earliest interaction with Crofskey.  

"I knew from the beginning something felt wrong, I just couldn't put my finger on it," Painter said in her speech. 

Painter says she couldn't shake the impression he left on her after the interview process and wondered to herself whether or not Crofskey was allowed to ask for personal information about her mental health. 

"How does that knowledge impact him or the business?" she thought at the time.  

Painter says she felt conflicted; some statements Crofskey made - like when he offered her his approval - felt good, while others left her doubting herself. 

"You could probably work anywhere you want! You interviewed really well," she recalls him saying. On another occasion she recounts him telling her "you need to act like an adult to be treated like one".

Before her shift, Painter recalls being asked: "Do you have anxiety or depression?"

"Enraged on the inside, it clicked - this is manipulation. I felt what it was like to feel insecure in my abilities."  

She says Crofskey belittled her and made unusual remarks such as "we don’t take sick days for getting food poisoning here, because we don’t eat chicken that’s been sitting on the bench for four days".

"At the time I knew I had concerns about an ongoing stomach issue that haven't been resolved but was too scared to say in case of rejection. I needed the job," Painter explained. 

Allegations about poor treatment and bullying from the cafe owner poured in online.
Allegations about poor treatment and bullying from the cafe owner poured in online. Photo credit: Supplied/Lauren Douglas.

Speaking generally, she says it is easy for victims of bullying to start thinking they are always in the wrong while being blind to the obvious fact that their employer is a person who can make mistakes too. 

"I think for us to truly understand what is going on we must go back to square one - the fundamental basics of being a child and listening to our emotions," she says. 

"Instead of ignoring how we feel, understanding that our feelings are valid and should be addressed at times. The employer may not even understand what is going on and how does anyone know there is room for improvement if something goes unsaid. 

"If talking to your employer does not seem like a way you can go about the situation there are organisations out there set in place to help."

There were warning signals during Painter's first shift that cemented the hunch she wouldn't be able to continue. 

"I began talking to other coworkers. I found out that we all only got one 20-minute break for every shift which was eight hours, and that we must turn up 15 minutes early for every shift, otherwise, we were considered late."

She says the duty manager stated, "'we don’t get leave on public holidays, because that is not the sort of business we are". With that acting as the final straw, Painter knew it wasn’t the sort of business she wanted to be a part of any longer. 

"That night I wrote a well-prepared text for the owner, stating why I shall not be working there with legal reasonings and no personal afflictions," Painter says. 

Crofskey, a former Canterbury president of the Restaurant Association, replied: "Cool". 

Painter says Culturesafe New Zealand and Raise the Bar gave her support while dealing with her experience urging anyone who is struggling to stand up for something that feels wrong. 

"Seeking help can be challenging but you have a voice and it should be heard. Start to view your situation from another's perspective. It will make it easier to understand what is going on if you step out of your own shoes. 

"Checking in with our emotions is vital, because why would we ignore the one person we’re going to spend our whole lives with?" 

Sam Crofskey and his lawyer received Newshub's request for comment but declined to make a statement. 

At the time of Painter's Facebook post, Crofskey acknowledged he needed to step back from running the café but didn't apologise. 

"During this time I will be taking professional advice around workplace culture and will assess my fit in the company," he wrote in a Facebook post.

"I’ve always valued our team, and I want everyone who works with us to feel valued.

"This has been an immensely upsetting time for everyone."