Newsroom Special Inquiry

Diane Maxwell - is she a bully?

A government agency run by one, all-powerful commissioner has experienced an eye-watering turnover of staff. A Newsroom investigation has uncovered allegations from more than a dozen former staff who say their boss, Diane Maxwell, has overseen a culture of bullying and management which impacted the health and wellbeing of multiple staff.

Diane Maxwell has built her career on confounding expectations.

Media profiles of the Retirement Commissioner play up the character traits that seem incongruous for such a stuffy role, like her “vibrant” dress sense and passion for longboarding.

Maxwell herself has made a virtue of modernising her job, at one point delivering an interactive online report about retirement policy to politicians - complete with superhero animations.

But talk to those who have worked at Maxwell’s Commission for Financial Capability, and a different picture emerges: that of a “Jekyll and Hyde character”, with Mr Hyde taking the form of an unpredictable, personally intimidating supremo whose staff held impromptu counselling sessions for traumatised employees.

Newsroom has spoken to more than a dozen former employees who have shared their own experiences of working for Maxwell. 

The details they share, like having work ripped up in front of them, being publicly shamed during meetings, and walking on eggshells, unsure “which Diane” would show up at work on any given day are concerning, but the pattern over many staff, is alarming.

One said they and others in the public sector referred to the organisation as The Commission for Diane Maxwell.

Another revealed to Newsroom that a group of senior staff wrote a letter to the State Services Commissioner outlining their concerns over Maxwell's leadership, but they lost their nerve in fear for their jobs and did not send it. 

Almost half the commission's staff left in the past financial year. Over the five years, there has been an average of 44 percent of staff quitting or departing.

Maxwell, who has been in the job five and half years, strongly denies the allegations of bullying. 

“I don't feel that rings true for who I am or for who I am as a leader. We’ve been through an extraordinary period of change. We’ve changed who we were as an organisation and what we did and that was very very hard.

“Now along the way various people haven’t agreed with that change and I respect and understand that but ... It’s been unpopular but, I believe it's the right thing to do. Now, along the way some people have not agreed with that strategy and not agreed with what we’re doing and that’s okay.”

Maxwell denies she ripped up work in front of people, told them they were incompetent, or criticised employees behind their back.

"Have you got anything that demonstrates that? I don’t raise my voice, I don’t undermine people, I don’t write anything intimidating, I try and help people to thrive ... I don’t know what I’m supposed to have done and I feel as though in this kind of role, with this kind of profile that I become a target. And I’m open to hearing this, but why hasn’t anyone brought a grievance?"

Former staff have told Newsroom that they did raise their concerns at exit interviews and did inform the Commission's HR manager that they felt bullied.

Asked if HR had ever raised the bullying issue with her, Maxwell replied: "It has been said to me but when we talked to people we couldn't find a problem. The people who had left had left under redundancy and the people who stayed didn't think there was a problem."

Maxwell's job is rare in the public service. Under the law creating the agency she is, legally, her own board. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is nominally the support department for the commission but she answers, directly, to no one. 

Commerce Minister Kris Faafoi, and before him National minister Paul Goldsmith, nominally had responsibility for Maxwell's organisation.

Responding to Newsroom's enquiries, Faafoi revealed he had sought advice from his officials after receiving an anonymous letter on Tuesday (the same day House Speaker Trevor Mallard announced a review into bullying culture in Parliament) which raised concerns about Maxwell and her time at the commission.

Asked if she was aware of that letter, Maxwell said no, she wasn't, but: "I was aware several months ago that the Minister asked me why I had such a turnover and I went through every departure with him. I talked him through the people who’d left, why they left, why the redundancies? I talked him through every piece of it."

Some of the staff spoken to by Newsroom still meet - and have a network referred to as the CFFC Survivor's Club.

These were people who came from and went on to high-profile jobs in the public and private sector, but many still bear scars from their time under Maxwell.

Several say they have received mental health treatment as a direct result of their time at the commission, while one employee suffered from heart palpitations due to the stress of the workplace.

Newsroom’s investigation raises questions not only about Maxwell, but the politicians and government officials meant to hold her to account.

Why has nothing been done to address a consistently high turnover rate of the commission’s staff, and a steady drop in the length of time people spend working at the organisation?

What was done with the complaints about Maxwell that were raised by departing employees during their exit interviews or with managers?

And who was meant to act on the commissioner’s behaviour, when the law allows Maxwell serve as her own board?

A shaky start

Some unrest began early, when Maxwell oversaw a 2014 restructure and renaming of the organisation (previously known as the Commission for Financial Literacy and Retirement Income).

As part of the shake-up, the bulk of the office relocated from Wellington to Auckland - a move that several employees said seemed more about Maxwell’s living preferences than the public good.

Employee G, who worked under both Maxwell and her predecessor Diana Crossan, said there was a feeling that Maxwell was “prejudiced against anything that emanates from Wellington”.

“She made me feel terrible, and she made me feel unemployable.”

He said Maxwell offered no considered reasoning when asked about the reason for the relocation, while the internal announcement was poorly handled with a feeling that Wellington-based staff were not welcome to make the move north.

“She basically said, ‘I wouldn’t blame you if you looked for jobs elsewhere’. You could see the whole morale of the place drop: here was the boss saying she didn’t want us.”

Employee L, who also worked under both Crossan and Maxwell, said there appeared to be a prejudice against the Wellington public servants, who were described as “comfy cardies” during one meeting in 2014.

“She made me feel terrible, and she made me feel unemployable.”

Jekyll and Hyde

But concerns about Maxwell’s management approach extended beyond the change of name and location.

Employee G said there was a striking difference between her public persona and her treatment of staff behind the scenes.

“She’s actually quite a Jekyll and Hyde character. What the public sees is incredibly sweet, hail-fellow-well-met - what the staff see is Mr Hyde.”

He said Maxwell would belittle individuals in front of others, criticising their work publicly in what he described as “classic undermining behaviour”.

“I observed one of my colleagues being bailed out over a problem: they were so shaken they had to go into a room and collect themselves.”

Employee C, a female staff member who worked under Maxwell for several years, said she was aware of other employees leaving the office in tears after being dressed down by the commissioner.

“I had it described to me by a mental health professional as very symptomatic of abuse ... she would bully you, then make you feel guilty about feeling negative things.”

Employee D, who said he moved to a job at the commission for the “warm fuzzies” of helping people to better understand their finances, found himself and others hosting impromptu “counselling sessions” in the evenings with affected staff, once senior management had left for the day.

Employee F was drawn to the commission out of admiration for its work on improving Kiwis’ financial nous.

“I thought it was such a privilege to spend my working career doing something great for New Zealand - it was a massive drawcard.”

His initial impression of Maxwell was great: she seemed personable, supportive, invested in his progress.

When he started at the commission, some former employees warned him about his boss, but it was easy to dismiss their words as sour grapes - but then he began to experience Maxwell’s unpredictability first-hand.

“There was a mix of being really supportive to your face, then at any minute, ‘Why are you doing that?’...

“There’s days when it’s best not to talk to her that day.”

It was difficult to tell whether Maxwell was acting that way deliberately, he said, although often her behaviour felt “calculated, it feels personal”.

“I had it described to me by a mental health professional as very symptomatic of abuse ...

“She would bully you, then make you feel guilty about feeling negative things.”

Employee F said he was still working on issues with his mental health as a result of his time at the commission, and he knew of others in the same boat.

“They come in as amazing, powerful people, and they leave broken down."

He wanted to stay at the commission, believing the chance to help hundreds or thousands of New Zealanders outweighed his own wellbeing, but eventually the strain became too much and he left after about a year in the job.

“Someone told me, you’ve got to leave before you become unemployable - it struck a chord.”

“I was scared of what she might do next, felt that my position was precarious (as was everyone’s), and was getting up each day feeling sick at the thought of going into work because I didn't know what was going to happen next.”

Employee B, who left after two years at the commission, was another employee who suffered during her time there and said the blame for the office’s “appalling, unsafe culture” had to reside with Maxwell, who ran the organisation.

“You hear about workplace bullying but don’t really appreciate how toxic it is until you see it happening to your colleagues and then experience it yourself,” she said.

Employee B said Maxwell would “frequently and strongly” criticise staff behind their backs to other employees, while anybody who challenged her - including the leadership team - was also targeted.

In the months before she resigned, she received “aggressive” texts and calls from Maxwell which she said made her feel uneasy about going into the office.

In her contemporaneous notes taken after one call, which Employee B provided to Newsroom, she wrote: “I came off the phone shaken. I felt an underlying threat from her, believe I am vulnerable to her volatile personality and discussed it with [friends] and told them that I had to leave because I felt unsafe working under her.

“I was scared of what she might do next, felt that my position was precarious (as was everyone’s), and was getting up each day feeling sick at the thought of going into work because I didn't know what was going to happen next.”

After suffering symptoms of chronic stress, including heart palpitations, Employee B was urged by her family and friends to leave her job.

She was not alone: Employee B knew of one person who had suffered panic attacks during their time under Maxwell, while on occasions  "strong people left her office in tears”.

Female staff targeted

Young female staff seemed to be singled out for criticism, with several employees telling Newsroom on occasions where they bore the brunt of Maxwell’s attacks.

“Any women who may have shown talent and who was well dressed, she would always have a negative response,” Employee C said.

One of those was Employee A, who had been initially impressed by Maxwell’s charisma.

“She seemed very visionary and quite inspirational, quite prepared to challenge convention, and I thought that might have an impact.”

But alarm bells rang during a management meeting in her first week.

“I thought the way she treated other members of the leadership team was quite odd: why are they getting a telling off, why are they being publicly shamed?”

By the end of her first month, she had become one of Maxwell’s targets, subject to jibes and “a few public dressing downs” in front of her team, as well as comments about her looks.

“She would tell me off for the way I spoke. She told me off once for playing with my hair at a meeting, that I needed to stop doing that and it was a regular habit of mine.

“I was a bit flabbergasted, like, ‘Do I do that?’”

On the verge of tears at meetings, Employee A had to leave the office to calm down, with Maxwell telling other employees, falsely, that she was helping her employee through the break-up of her relationship.

As with Employee F, Maxwell would tell Employee A a piece of work had been approved, only to later “pull the rug out from under me and say, ‘I never approved that’”.

On the verge of tears at meetings, she had to leave the office to calm down, with Maxwell telling other employees, falsely, that she was helping Employee A through the break-up of her relationship.

She sought counselling in the last few months of her time at the commission, with her confidence “really knocked”, and eventually found a way out less than a year after she took up the position.

“I loved the opportunity, I could have seen myself there for a couple of years, but I just had no room to move.”

Employee K, who quit the commission after less than a year, said she had felt inspired by her new role but quickly ran into "constant roadblocks and ridicule".

There was a lack of accountability, she said, no strategic direction or business plans to follow and a sense that the commissioner's public profile was the priority: when she worked on initiatives which she believed were making a difference, she was "shot down as it detracted from [Maxwell's] limelight".

Employee K said she was exposed to, and a witness to, bullying of staff by Maxwell, and was aware of direct threats made by her to other staff as people left the commission.

Her own short time at the commission had had a lasting effect, as she sought counselling about Maxwell's impact on her confidence and career path.

Turnover figures tell a tale

The numbers tell their own story when it comes to staff turnover under Maxwell.

Figures provided to Parliament’s Commerce select committee by the commission show over half of the organisation’s staff left their roles in the 2017/18 financial year.

That isn’t even the highest mark reached during her tenure: that honour goes to the 2013/14 year, Maxwell’s first in the job when she led a restructuring, when nearly 90 percent of staff left through a combination of resignations and redundancies.

Across her five years in charge, there has been an average turnover rate of nearly 44 percent - far higher than the public sector average of 11 to 12 percent.

The average length of service at the commission has also dropped precipitously.

In the 2012/13 financial year, the year before Maxwell began as commissioner, staff had spent an average of just under three years at the commission - in 2017/18, that figure had dropped to a little over a year.

Maxwell has been quick to brush off the departures, claiming in a media interview with Stuff the cause was not unhappiness but the finance sector poaching her “outstanding people”.

But the employees Newsroom spoke to all felt pushed, rather than pulled, out of the commission. Some believed the true attrition rate could be even higher, with the early departures of some contractors and assistants potentially not accounted for.

Who watches the watchdog?

That the departure of so many staff has failed to raise eyebrows or questions at Parliament points to potential shortcomings with the commission’s structure, according to former staff.

As an autonomous Crown entity, the CFFC must “have regard to” any policy directives from the minister in charge (in this case, the Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister, a role which has not traditionally been highly valued).

However, the organisation differs from other Crown entities in being a “corporation sole” - a legal construct meaning that the commissioner is themselves the corporation.

While most Crown entities have a board providing oversight of the actions of management, that is not the case for Maxwell: as the legislation establishing the role puts it, “the commissioner is the board”.

There are also question marks about the workplace practices at the commission during Maxwell’s time in charge.

Some said there were no HR processes to speak of during their time at the commission, while a person who was subsequently appointed to an HR role was themselves the target of bullying from Maxwell, according to several employees.

“You know she’s connected - she’ll literally come for you."

Several employees did register their concerns with their managers or during exit interviews, only to be stymied by the organisation’s structure which put nearly all of the power in Maxwell’s hands.

“It goes everyone, then Diane, then the Government,” Employee F said.

The sense of fear that Maxwell instilled in her employees - one of the reasons why none wanted to be named when talking to Newsroom about her - helped to put a lid on any whistleblowing.

“You know she’s connected - she’ll literally come for you,” Employee D said.

Maxwell’s charming side also played a role. Employee G said the commissioner was talented at “managing upwards” with politicians, media and other influential figures.

Employee K agreed, saying Maxwell's ability to "present publicly as an inspirational and intelligent leader", including at women's empowerment events, was "incredible".

"It sickened me that someone who did the exact opposite of what she preached about was allowed a platform to speak on this topic."

"She needs to do great things despite the human cost: there’s always going to be more humans who will work for her.”

There are positive reasons why Maxwell was chosen for the job.

Several employees spoke about her visionary leadership and intelligence - the problem was that those qualities were outweighed by the damage that could be done to those tasked with carrying out her vision.

“She’s quite admirable in terms of, she can get stuff done, she can do a good job, she’s done amazing things,” Employee F said.

“You can see all that and forget the human cost that comes with that...she needs to do great things despite the human cost: there’s always going to be more humans who will work for her.”

Helping former staff to get over the price they paid was one of the main reasons for the "CFFC Survivors' Club", an Auckland group which several employees mentioned as a support mechanism once they left.

Employee A was approached to join in once news of her departure spread, and described her first meeting as "one of the most comforting yet weirdest experiences".

"You are completely bonded to this group because of your shared work experience of Diane’s treatment of you but most of them you never worked with.

"No one else in your life can understand the culture, nor the emotional impact, like this group who have experienced it too."

Faafoi responds

Responding to questions from Newsroom, Faafoi said he had "directly raised" the commission's high turnover with Maxwell after receiving the latest select committee figures in May. She had told him there were "a number of factors" influencing staff turnover.

He revealed he had "immediately" sought advice from his officials after being made aware this week of an anonymous letter sent to his office which raised concerns about Maxwell's leadership.

Faafoi would not go into further detail, saying he had not yet received the requested advice, but said: "This government and I personally strongly believe everyone should be treated with respect in the workplace."

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