Cleanaway Waste Management chairman Mark Chellew did not financially penalise Vik Bansal for inappropriate conduct despite investigating a 2019 whistleblower complaint alleging his chief executive engaged in widespread “bullying”.
The allegations include that Mr Bansal made “unsubstantiated accusations” over emails he would forward to others and repeatedly told workers they had “no f–king idea” during company meetings.
The company’s top human resources boss, Johanna Birgersson, was also long aware of the alleged conduct as the formal complaint, made through KPMG’s whistleblowing service FairCall in March 2019, was also sent directly to Mr Chellew and Ms Birgersson, and separately to fellow Cleanaway board directors Ray Smith, Mike Harding, Terry Sinclair, Emma Stein and Philippe Etienne.
Mr Chellew this week said the board would “not tolerate any further instances of unacceptable conduct” from Mr Bansal, after The Australian Financial Review revealed a separate whistleblowing complaint in May 2020 alleging Mr Bansal had led a “culture of bullying and harassment” triggered an independent investigation that established the chief executive’s “unacceptable conduct”.
However, revelations of a prior complaint reveal allegations of bullying by Mr Bansal have been known to top company officers for much longer.
The whistleblower complaint in May 2020 also referenced instances where a number of senior women had left the business due to Mr Bansal’s treatment, one of whom the Financial Review has learnt also made a formal complaint to Cleanaway management in September 2019.
Current and former employees have said Mr Bansal’s behaviour did not noticeably change between March 2019 and May 2020.
In the three-page document posted to the board of directors in March 2019, the Cleanaway employee also said Ms Birgersson had “repeatedly witnessed” Mr Bansal’s “highly inappropriate and unprofessional conduct”.
‘Tirade of abuse’
The whistleblower alleged Mr Bansal made “unsubstantiated accusations” about employees over email and responded to emails inappropriately by copying in a wider audience who were not included in earlier correspondence.
Mr Bansal was also alleged to have told workers they had “no f–king idea” repeatedly in discussions, and aggressively told senior employees to “just do your f–king job” multiple times in front of senior management and their peers even when the matter in question was outside their control.
The complaint also alleged Mr Bansal told employees “if you don’t like it, there’s the f–king door”, that the chief executive had a habit of storming out of meetings after delivering a “tirade of abuse”, hanging up midway through phone calls, and making continual threats over employment by saying “I’ll find somebody who can”.
Mr Chellew is also a director of Caltex Australia, but resigned from the Virgin Australia and Infigen Energy boards earlier this year.
A Cleanaway spokesman said the board “was aware of previous anonymous complaints relating to the CEO prior to conducting the independent investigation in June 2020”.
“The board received an anonymous whistleblower complaint in March 2019,” the spokesman said. “In response to that complaint, the board conducted an investigation into the issues raised which was led personally by the chair.
“This resulted in the CEO being counselled and a series of measures taken including changes to the HR structure and a commitment on behalf of the CEO to change.”
The whistleblower, a senior company manager, told Cleanaway that they personally were a dedicated, hardworking and committed employee who had not received any performance management and was delivering good results for the company.
However, they said they were suffering from stress and anxiety, not sleeping and had a “fear of any interactions I might have or witness” with Mr Bansal.
The employee said Ms Birgersson had an obligation, under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004, to gather information and evidence in relation to the complaint, determine whether there was a breach of the company’s corporate code of conduct, and ensure the behaviour and conduct ceased immediately, noting that it was “not legal and it is certainly not OK”.
“Cleanaway promote themselves as a values-driven organisation who actively seek people who live these values day in, day out,” the whistleblower told the company.
“Vik Bansal in no way demonstrates these values through his leadership, conduct and behaviour and makes a mockery of the company values. His repeated behaviour and conduct poses a risk to Cleanaway.”
‘His behaviour is well known’
The employee said Mr Bansal’s alleged conduct was ” unprofessional, unreasonable, humiliating, intimidating and threatening” and that there were likely other complaints that had been made about the chief executive.
“His behaviour is well known and openly spoken about at all levels within the organisation, however given the power imbalance, employees genuinely fear raising a complaint,” the employee said.
The complaint also mentioned that “other employees are also keeping file notes of their altercations and of those they have witnessed” and that “recent engagement survey results and turnover of senior leaders over the last few years” warranted closer inspection.
The whistleblower said they had “no doubt this complaint would be swept under the carpet” if it wasn’t sent to all the board members.
Following the May 2020 complaint and independent investigation, Mr Bansal is now receiving “mentoring” and is subject to “enhanced reporting and monitoring”.
Mr Bansal has revived the fortunes of the $4.5 billion company since joining in 2015, triggering a 300 per cent rally in Cleanaway shares over that time.
But his management style has left many unhappy. Those who have worked with Mr Bansal argue his leadership style is the chief reason for the company’s high rate of turnover in senior management and lower-level employees, which included a recent instance where six out of eight general managers resigned within six months, and the departure of a half-dozen employees who filled the group’s head of health and safety role over the past four years.
Cleanaway shares have plunged 13 per cent since the Financial Review’s revelations, while shares in rival waste group Bingo Industries have enjoyed a 3.5 per cent rise.
Mr Bansal’s alleged reluctance to allow employees to work from home triggered the whistleblower complaint in May, in which it was alleged the chief executive told employees and managers that he expected workers to come into the office. That went against guidelines issued by the Victorian government that recommended workers stay home unless it was not practicable for them to do so.
Mr Bansal late last month sold 73 per cent of his 5.5 million shares in the company for a total of $10 million. This is being examined by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. There is no suggestion the share sales were related to the findings of the investigation.
The on-market share sales came just days after fine print in Cleanaway’s full-year financial accounts showed Mr Bansal “offered to forgo” his short-term incentive bonus “due to COVID-19-related challenges faced by the group” and that the board had “agreed to reduce” his short-term bonus by 25 per cent.
No other Cleanaway executive manager volunteered to reduce their bonus that year and no reason was provided to the market for Mr Bansal’s share sales. The company has declined to answer questions about the share sale.
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