After a months-long 1 NEWS investigation, Oscar award-winning visual effects studio Weta Digital has announced a Queen’s Counsel will be conducting an independent inquiry into claims of bullying, harassment and misconduct at the company. To date 48 current and former Weta Digital workers have come forward to reporter Kristin Hall with concerns about the company’s culture. She recounts some of their stories.
That was the overt behaviour, but many stories suggested a more insidious problem for female crew in a company dominated by men.
Person 20 says she’s heard countless comments, from senior colleagues about “how being a woman was probably the reason that got me hired”.
“It was thrown in my face, from various senior co-workers.
“The best way for me to explain it, it's like being hit by a pebble, repeatedly. At first, you don't notice it, or you think it's just clumsy. After a while, it becomes annoying, irritating. Eventually, it hurts.
“When things are flagged, it's brushed off with template answers such as ‘be less sensitive’, ‘toughen up’, or ‘there have been problems with that person for years, don't worry too much’.”
Several crew members say the company is particularly tough on mothers and pregnant women.
Person 12 says the sight of a heavily pregnant colleague being made to carry full rubbish bags around among “a sea of seated men in a multi-million dollar company” still sickens her.
“They had a woman in the facilities department doing heavy duties such as emptying large glass bins of empty alcohol bottles, who was nine months pregnant,” she says.
“She said she’d asked for help from her manager to do less strenuous tasks with her large baby bump but wasn’t given it. She couldn’t afford to leave her contract early to go on her maternity leave, so she had to just work dangerously through it.”
Another woman, Person 32, recalls being made to sit on the floor during an hour-long meeting just weeks before she was due to leave to give birth.
“Weta Digital always has these meetings in overcrowded meeting rooms where there’s not enough seating. I was really pregnant, probably 2 weeks away from finishing work, and I had to sit on the floor.
“I’ve got my laptop on the floor because I can’t put it on my lap, and all the men in the room just ignore the fact that there’s a pregnant woman on the floor. People don’t give a shit. They just don’t care.”
Others say they have hidden their pregnancies at work or avoided going to doctors or midwife appointments because of the stigma of being a mother.
“Most of my female colleagues lie about their pregnancies to Weta HR until they get their one-year offer,” Person 17 says.
“They then take maternity leave and make sure they return back with at least six months left on contract to prove themselves on annual review.
“The whole time they are back they are scrutinised much harsher than usual for the expected sick leave that having small children incur,” she says.
Others spoke of their technical ability being repeatedly questioned, being dismissed as “emotional” for pointing out problems or feeling like they had to work twice as hard as male colleagues for promotions.
Person 19 pointed to the number of women in senior positions profiled on the company website - they are outnumbered by men 7:1.
“Shoulder tapping is commonplace, and women find it harder to advance,” she says.
“There is a culture of men falling upwards. Women are held to different standards and expectations.”
Person 36, a current crew member, summed her feelings up by saying: “Discrimination is so bad and it’s current and ongoing. It’s not a thing of the past.”
“It’s destroyed me”
It’s not just women who say they’ve suffered during their time at Weta Digital. Multiple men have spoken of bullying from senior colleagues and managers driving them to breaking point.
Person 34 says he was bullied and belittled by the head of his department, who is still in his position, a man he describes as a “complete sociopath”.
“He constantly looked to undermine those around him and made everyone working for him miserable. I did make a formal complaint to HR about his bullying. Nothing was done.
“His behaviour was tolerated as ‘eccentric’ because he could be used as a marketing chip in client negotiations.
“I experienced health issues, initially seeing a counsellor for mental health and eventually a GP for physical symptoms induced by stress, including one visit to the after-hours emergency clinic.”
Person 11 says he suffered similar treatment, with similarly devastating consequences on his mental health.
He says he was bullied “from day one”, but the tipping point was a well-connected colleague was making up rumours about him.
“I took this up with HR who told me to ignore her,” he says. “My head of department told me to ‘grow a thicker skin’.
“I had a mental breakdown and moved back to my hometown where I recovered and received therapy for a year.”
Some allege homophobia – Person 37 says he was called a “faggot” by a senior colleague. Person 35 witnessed a similar incident. Multiple sources say an “offensive” email related to the company’s participation in Pride Week was sent from the account of a senior manager in March 2018, and was immediately labelled a “hack” by HR.
None of them believe the manager’s email was hacked.
“That was particularly jarring,” Person 21 says.
“Especially given it was widely known that there was no evidence of any kind of security incident.”
Person 30 talks about his former team leader with a quiver in his voice. His outcome is the one everyone fears.
He says he was subjected to “some of the most demeaning and disgusting bullying behaviour” he’s ever encountered in his life while working at the company, including being the target of degrading personal comments and acts.
He says when he tried to request more flexible work hours for compassionate reasons, his manager dismissed the professionals he’d consulted with as “quacks”.
“I watched him bring other people to tears - we were all men. The bullying in that place crosses all lines and all borders.”
Like others, he says he’d studied specifically for his field, and worked hard but, “it didn’t matter how bad it was going to get, I wasn’t going to walk out”.
But he says he did report the bullying, along with several others in his team, after a company-wide email was sent out inviting staff to blow the whistle on bad behaviour.
“It just disappeared into a void,” he says. “Nothing happened.”
Since being let go from the company he says he now suffers from severe mental health issues. His work was highly specialised, and he’s struggled to find a job.
He says his experience at Weta Digital is “100 percent” what’s caused his ongoing mental distress.
“I’m not right, I’m not emotionally right, and I haven’t been since.
“It’s destroyed me.”
Most of the staff quoted in this piece are either still working at Weta Digital or have left within the last three years. Some believe the company has the capacity to change its culture. Others say the culture won’t change until particular managers and team leaders are fired.
More people still say change is unlikely while current legislation continues to define even long-serving crew members as contractors, whose employment can be ended at a moment’s notice.
Others believe it’s already changed, in some ways.
Person 7 is soft-spoken and seems a little defeated. He says he hopes the days of “pissing competitions” are over.
“The thing about toxic masculinity is it’s awful for everyone. It is toxic and careless and wasteful and unkind. It’s very hard for people to be happy in those work environments regardless of who they are.
“I think men in general should welcome some change.”
Person 15 says there are crew in the company fighting hard to turn things around, and he “absolutely” believes the QC investigation will help. He seems enthusiastic, and hopeful.
“I feel like we can't sweep it under the rug,” he says.
“We have to face it head on and stop it.”
Weta Digital says it has appointed QC, Miriam Dean CNZM, to conduct an independent review of the company’s workplace culture and examine complaints of inappropriate behaviour.
The company says the review has been commissioned by Weta Digital’s owners, including Sir Peter Jackson and Dame Fran Walsh, and its Chief Executive Officer, Prem Akkaraju, “in response to media reports of current and former crew members’ complaints of harassment, bullying and discrimination.”
Mr Akkaraju says he’s urging current and former staff with concerns to contact Miriam Dean.
“Miriam has vast experience, having conducted a number of notable independent reviews. I fully trust her and the integrity of her process.….Identities of anyone interviewed will not be disclosed to Weta Digital unless the interviewee so chooses.”
The company says Miriam Dean QC “has the ability to look into more historic complaints”, but the main focus of the review will be current complaints and the workplace culture.
“The reviewer will provide Weta Digital’s CEO and the company owners with the report but will not disclose the identity of those making complaints or those interviewed” it says.
Weta Digital says Miriam Dean is “widely recognised for her skills and experience”.
She has previously undertaken reviews of the Auckland City Council’s council-controlled organisations and culture, electricity prices, the Department of Corrections handling of prisoners' mail, the Accident Compensation Corporation's dispute resolution processes and the Fonterra botulism scare.
The company says she has also served as Chair of New Zealand on Air, and more recently as chair of the Screen Sector Strategy Facilitation Group, which was responsible for developing a 10 year strategy for the screen sector at the request of the Prime Minister.
Do you have more information about this story? Contact our reporter Kristin Hall at email@example.com