A former Emma House CEO says she felt bullied and harassed by the board in her short time with the organisation, and that she has serious concerns about the way it is being run.
Cindee Richardson spoke to The Standard about a month after leaving the domestic violence service on June 17.
Ms Richardson said she wanted the community to know her position was terminated and she felt bullied into signing a resignation form just eight weeks into her new role as chief executive officer.
Ms Richardson uprooted her life and left her family in Canada when she took the job in April.
She said in her first two weeks at the service, two senior board members resigned and the board prohibited staff from speaking to them.
She then received three written and three verbal complaints from staff.
Ms Richardson said the complaints involved claims of nepotism and bullying by senior management, as well as a toxic working environment and staff being burnt-out.
The Emma House board maintains Ms Richardson resigned from the service and that a recent independent investigation found "generalised workplace concerns" raised by staff weren't categorised as allegations of bullying or harassment.
Ms Richardson said one staff member came to her crying and another asked to meet off-site as she didn't feel safe being seen in the CEO's office.
She said she considered it her job to keep the board informed of such complaints but they were dismissed.
The board said it was unprofessional to voice staff concerns at a board meeting, Ms Richardson claimed.
She said there were many questions to be answered, including why the not-for-profit service had $2 million in taxpayers' money across several bank accounts.
"I've worked for not-for-profits all my life and have always been lucky to break even. Why does this organisation have so much money, taxpayers' money, when staff are so burnt-out and overworked?," Ms Richardson said.
The former CEO claimed one staff member was running the Emma House housing department, which used to have a team of at least five and despite there being $500,000 available in the housing budget.
And case managers were each carrying a load of 20 clients, she said.
"I saw a lot of high burn-out without proper support and supervision," Ms Richardson said.
A Department of Families, Fairness and Housing spokeswoman said the department was aware Emma House was addressing issues of workplace culture and was working with them to ensure service continuity.
Ms Richardson's claims came six years after an independent report uncovered widespread governance and management issues within Emma House in 2016.
Ms Richardson said she wanted to make it clear she had no intention to hurt clients and the "good staff" at Emma House.
"But that board and some staff in senior management positions have a lot to account for," Ms Richardson said.
"The way I was treated in just eight short weeks was telling."
Ms Richardson, who has 30 years' experience as a certified board and organisation trainer, said she wanted to speak out about Emma House to forewarn future women about workplace conditions.
"I had 25 years in the non-profit world and was really drawn to the fact (Emma House) said it was a feminist organisation but was dismayed at the way they operate," she said.
"For women to treat women in this way, under the banner of providing safety for women and children, is just baffling. It is highly irregular."
Ms Richardson said she also wanted the south-west community to know that she didn't abandon them.
She said the board gave her five reasons for her "abrupt termination", including advising the board of staff complaints, failing to return a board member's phone call until the next day, refusing to manage the performance of a senior staff member because a HR firm was hired, and sending an email dictated by the board on the wrong day.
Ms Richardson said the fifth reason was the board hearing a comment Ms Richardson made at a private dinner party about being encouraged by her daughter to go to work one day when she felt particularly alone.
Ms Richardson lived 14,000 kilometres from her family at the time.
She said she was shocked when the board attended her office on Friday, June 17 and listed the five reasons for her "immediate termination".
"I wasn't even given the courtesy of a conversation. I was treated like a criminal and it was traumatic. None of those reasons were grounds for termination and I will never know what really was going on," she said.
Ms Richardson said she signed a resignation form that day.
Less than 48 hours later she wrote to the board stating she did so in a state of complete shock.
On June 21 she asked to withdraw her "forced resignation" and urged the board to note her position was terminated.
"It wasn't a choice by me," she told The Standard.
"It looked like I had just walked away, it looked like I had abandoned staff, and people I had made contracts with regarding the relocation to a new building.
"I'm not that person. I wouldn't have entered agreements without intending to fulfil them."
The board told The Standard on July 6 that principal solicitor Sulaika Dhanapala had stepped into the role of acting CEO.
Ms Richardson said Ms Dhanapala was a "decent person" with a lot of integrity but already had a full-time job.
"She is very client-focused," she said.
But it was the board that was the focus of Ms Richardson's criticism.
"They don't deserve to lead Emma House anymore," she said.
"Emma House deserves an informed board that understands basic roles and responsibilities of board members."
Emma House chair Gabrielle Toscan said the board recently engaged an independent investigator to examine if any generalised workplace concerns raised by staff could be considered bullying or harassment.
"The investigation found that no concerns raised could be categorised as allegations of bullying or harassment," she said.
The Standard's request for more information about the independent investigation into bullying claims was denied.
Ms Toscan said all matters regarding the nature of Ms Richardson's resignation, as well as the investigation, remained confidential.
"Emma House continues to focus on the matters that are most important and that is providing services that support women and children experiencing family violence," she said.
She said providing a safe workplace for staff was "very important to our executive and to the board".
"It has been a challenging time for Emma House with changes in leadership and difficulties filling vacant positions along with the pressure on family violence services like ours that has been felt across the state," Ms Toscan said.
She said there'd been four permanent chief executive officers in 22 years.
"Outside of these, there have been individuals who have acted in the role or been appointed on an interim arrangement," she said.
"This has largely been due to challenges recruiting, which is not unusual for the family violence sector. According to the Victorian Department of Families, Fairness and Housing there are currently over 2000 vacant roles within the sector."
Ms Toscan said as per Emma House's governance procedures, board members (current and former) were expected to maintain separation between operational and governance information.
"It is not appropriate for board members (current or former) to engage staff in discussions about Emma House and we expect this to be maintained at all times," she said.
When asked about Emma House's finances, Ms Toscan said there was a surplus of funds being held as part of the board's financial governance to ensure ongoing viability of the organisation.
"There are currently several vacant roles at Emma House, all of which are publicly advertised. The wages for those vacant roles have been protected to ensure proper funding is available," she said.
"This includes two vacant positions in our housing team, who will join the three people currently in this team.
"We are also working through arrangements to improve our current facility and funds will be earmarked for upgrades to our current space, leasing another premises or other options that may be identified as we progress this work."
Ms Toscan said Emma House's financial position was published in its annual report and made public online.
The most recent report from the 2021 calendar year shows more than $300,000 in "excess of revenue over expenses".
The Emma House board said in a statement every decision made was with the safety and welfare of women and children in the region in mind.
"We exist to support those who need us most, women and children experiencing family violence. Without our dedicated staff, we cannot do what we are here to do and for that reason, we strive to offer a safe workplace," the statement said.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Emma House is a Warrnambool-based not-for-profit service and can be contacted through 1800 EMMADV (1800 366238) or visit emmahouse.org.au/
Safe Steps for women after hours service is available through 188 015 188.
Brophy Family and Youth Services can be contacted on 1300 BROPHY or 03 5561 8888.
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