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Signage at the WWF Singapore branch office. Photo: AFP

WWF Singapore ex-employee says workplace bullying gave her PTSD

  • Coralie Ponsinet, 31, is seeking compensation for emotional abuse by her former boss; WWF says it has ‘acted swiftly’ on substantiated complaints
  • New legislation announced in August aimed at regulating workplace discrimination will ’improve grievance handling’ in Singapore, legal expert said
A former WWF Singapore employee who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after allegedly being bullied by her old boss has spoken out against the global conservation body, which she says rejected her request for compensation to cover medical treatment.
French national Coralie Ponsinet, 31, claims she suffered emotional abuse as a junior member of the sustainable finance team at the NGO’s Singapore branch from July 2015 to February 2017, after which she left the city state for a job in Australia.

Three other people who worked at WWF Singapore during this same 19-month period described similar experiences, but declined to be named for privacy reasons.

In October 2017, a Melbourne doctor diagnosed Ponsinet – whose symptoms included insomnia, depression, loss of self-esteem, headaches and digestive issues – with PTSD, attributing the condition to a “persistent pattern of mistreatment by her former boss, which caused her undue emotional harm”, according to a medical report seen by This Week In Asia .

Ponsinet said she raised the alarm about bullying during her exit interview, and subsequently wrote to the human resources team at WWF’s head office in Switzerland about what had transpired.

But her request for compensation, made in September last year, was ultimately rejected, with the conservation body telling Ponsinet in an email that her former boss’s actions “cannot be equated with WWF” and so the organisation “does not accept any suggestion that it is liable”.

The Singapore skyline. Photo: AFP

Her former manager was dismissed for misconduct in January 2020 following a separate investigation sparked by another employee’s complaints.

Ponsinet consulted lawyers, but she decided against legal options such as a civil suit against her former manager – whom she described as well-connected and influential – as she did not have the funds, opting to go public with her story instead.

“I may be naive, but I don’t think people donate money to NGOs for people to be badly treated. I am a serious advocate for change and justice and believe I was wronged by WWF,” she said.

WWF, which employs more than 6,000 staff worldwide and had operating revenues of US$350 million last year, said in a statement that it has “no tolerance for misconduct or harassment of any kind” and highlighted its policy for inappropriate behaviour, which enables employees to complain “without fear of reprisals” through a whistle-blower channel.

CEO R Raghunathan, who was appointed in April last year, told This Week in Asia that WWF could not comment on individual cases, but had “acted swiftly whenever complaints have been brought to our attention, from commissioning investigations to ensuring disciplinary action where allegations have been substantiated”.

At present, there are no specific laws in Singapore to directly regulate workplace discrimination, but in August Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the government would enact laws to formerly enshrine the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), which provides guidelines on the fair treatment of workers, into statute.

Gerard Quek, a partner at law firm PDLegal in Singapore, said these laws would “improve grievance handling within organisations” and, crucially, “expand the range of actions that may be taken against errant employers”.

Coralie Ponsinet, in a photo taken during her time at the WWF. Photo: Handout

‘I lived in constant fear’

After Ponsinet’s diagnosis, she ended up leaving her new job at accountancy firm EY and spent a year unemployed while undergoing psychological treatment. She now works as a part-time office manager in Melbourne.

“It took me seven long months after I left WWF and Singapore to understand how much I had been personally and professionally destroyed by bullying,” she said, recounting the distress, anxiety, and panic attacks she experienced upon arriving at work each morning.

Ponsinet claims she was constantly undermined, told that she was not up to her job, and manipulated into thinking she was always at fault. Verbal abuse included inappropriate personal comments about her personal life and race, she said.

“For a year and a half, I lived in constant fear,” Ponsinet said. “I was constantly told that I was not worth anything. All I could see of myself was a failure.”

In May 2018, after her diagnosis, Ponsinet filed a complaint with WWF headquarters about the toxic management practices in its Singapore office, resulting in the organisation launching an investigation.

In an interview with a WWF human resources executive several weeks later Ponsinet said she was asked if she understood what bullying really was. The executive also suggested that nationality was a factor, she said, with Ponsinet told that another person who had complained of bullying was also French.

Ponsinet said that during her former manager’s tenure at WWF Singapore, at least seven people on the sustainability finance team left in less than three years. A group chat on Telegram had also been set up where ex-team members exchanged their experiences of alleged bullying.

WWF, which has more than 5 million supporters worldwide and is the world’s largest conservation group, said that it has carried out investigations into Ponsinet’s allegations, and will look into the matter further “should the facts warrant it”.
A park opposite the central business district in Singapore. Photo: Bloomberg

‘Halo effect’

A former colleague of Ponsinet’s, one of three interviewed for this article, described a “toxic culture of bullying” at the organisation’s Singapore office at the time in question.

“People were going into work scared,” she said. “People were fearful of opening emails.”

She recounted a meeting when she was told in front of her colleagues that she was of “no value” to the organisation, adding that both individual staff and whole teams were often played off against one another with people who fell out of favour being hounded out their jobs.

Another former employee said she was humiliated in department meetings and carried a feeling of “intense dread” from being shouted at or undermined.

“I left that job feeling so belittled … what is worse than the people who do the bullying is the people who allow it to happen by inaction. I think many people in the office were just glad it wasn’t them.”

The third ex-staff member said he left when the job became “untenable” because of the continuous bullying.

WWF was recognised in July as the NGO that contributes most to sustainable development in a global survey of sustainability experts. Yet “shockingly” high staff turnover at WWF Singapore had consequences for programmes, as new staff would need to be trained to get up to speed, the former staff member said.

Having worked for more than 15 years in the sustainability sector, he said that the culture in non-profit organisations was susceptible to bullying and abuse, partly because the people are prepared to throw themselves into working for a good cause.

In 2018, a culture of bullying and harassment, with recriminations for whistle-blowers, surfaced at Conservation International, another of the world’s largest conservation groups. The news led to calls for changes in the way it handled abuse allegations, as staff had feared speaking out would damage their careers or that they would be branded a troublemaker.

Pedestrians pass the Singapore skyline. Photo: Reuters

Said the third former staff member: “The nature of NGOs is that people are working for ideas and ideals, and there are many ways to solve a problem.”

“People start to hate each other over ideas and how they’re implemented. It’s an ego-fest,” he said.

Animah Kosai, a lawyer and founder of Speak Up Collective, a Britain-based healthy workplace non-profit organisation, said workplace bullying in NGOs could be under-reported because of the “halo effect” in which those who work there are all seen as do-gooders.

“People in the non-profit world might demonstrate saviour-type tendencies. It’s natural, as that’s how non-profits portray themselves. We hold saviours or heroes up, and with this, we give them more power,” she said.

Non-profit organisations were less likely to invest in leadership training and have clear policies to address workplace bullying, she added.

Linda Crocket, founder of the Canadian Institute of Workplace Bullying and Harassment Resources, said the problem of workplace bullying had worsened as more people worked from home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Examples she has come across include employees being called on their home telephones by bosses who demand that they attend work in person even when it was unsafe to do so.

She advised those who have experienced workplace bullying to document all interactions, and be aware of company policies and the law before calling out the bully calmly and professionally.

“Workplace bullying and harassment are psychological hazards. If a psychological injury has developed, don’t let anyone force you to confront the person who is causing you harm. You are then at risk of secondary harm. Seek qualified help to support and advocate with you through this,” she said.