Workplace harassment: ‘a dangerous point’ at city hall


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It would be fair to suggest the City of St. Thomas, as a corporation, be held to a high standard of excellence with regard to workplace environment.

In other words, municipal employees in dealings with their peers would expect to enjoy a relatively harassment-free workplace in which to conduct city business.

Well it’s not quite that cut and dried, as we discovered following conversations in the last two weeks with human resources manager Graham Dart and a city works employee.

“As an employer, we don’t have to guarantee a harassment-free workplace, because we can’t do that,” Dart pointed out.

“There is no expectation or requirement of that. But there is an obligation on our part — especially under the Occupational Health & Safety Act — that we address harassment in the workplace.”

Dart added, “At the City of St. Thomas, we have a respect in the workplace policy. It complies with the Occupational Health & Safety Act and we have an investigative procedure set out.
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“I would say there is an expectation by the corporation — senior administration and even council — that our employees conduct themselves in the highest professional manner they can when dealing with each other and the public. But you know what, things break down and I would be the first to say that and it doesn’t always happen.”

Over the past dozen years, there have been a couple of instances where the expectation evaporated in spectacular fashion.

And, following a couple of phone calls with a city employee — let’s refer to the individual as Dave — completely frustrated with the investigative process laid out for staff dealing with what they feel are harassing situations, we are left to wonder whether another wheel has fallen off the cart.

“There are a lot of different situations going on,” a frustrated Dave told this corner recently, “and HR doesn’t seem to want to do anything about it and they’re the ones who create these policies.

“We’re told there is zero tolerance against bullying, harassment and violence. Well I’ve been with the city for 25 years and I’ve yet to see anything happen to people who are doing this.”

The nature of the harassment, Dave points out, involves fellow employees and managers and is both verbal and physical.

“I’m just totally shocked at what’s happened to this place in the last 15 years. I’ve gone to the union and we’ve exhausted that. We’ve gone as far as we can.”

That includes face-to-face meetings with the HR department at city hall.

“I don’t know what other people have gone through,” Dave advises, “I don’t know what has happened with their meetings. I just know what I’ve gone through.

“That includes two violent occurrences where nothing was done at all. In 2005, I witnessed a person physically assault another person and this person admitted he did it. Not long after that, they gave this person a promotion. Nothing was done to him at all.”

So why is Dave speaking out now?

“Because it’s getting worse. It’s getting to a dangerous point where I don’t know what’s going to happen. They just don’t seem to care.

“We don’t make the policies. They’re the ones who make the policies and say we have to follow them. So, when an issue happens, they don’t want to seem to deal with it.”

In the case of complaints filed by Dave, he’s been told it’s “a done deal.”

“They’ve done all they can do, they haven’t contravened any of their policies. So this is where I’m at.”

He last met with the HR department about a month ago and there was little room for optimism.

“We’re going after HR and HR is saying, ‘no we’re good, thanks see you later, out the door you go.’”

A little more than two years ago, this corner wrote about a disturbing situation in the treasury department.

“It’s an atmosphere that has been described as poisonous,” was the picture painted in City Scope.

”A department where the director is accused of harassing, bullying and belittling a long-time employee who, as a result, is now absent from the workplace on stress leave.

“A situation where an individual charged with the financial welfare of a $110 million corporation is in flagrant and repeated violation of that organization’s respect in the workplace policy. What is shocking is the venue — the treasury department at city hall — and the actions of (then) city treasurer Bill
Day
.”

More recently, on the occasion Gord Campbell announced his retirement from municipal politics, we recalled a similar situation dating back to 2003.
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“Over a career spanning more than three decades Campbell, no doubt, could document dozens of memorable accomplishments,” City Scope recounted.

“This corner will nominate one incident that stands out from the crowd.

“It’s mid-September, 2003, and Campbell has just met with St. Thomas police Chief Bill Lynch to discuss ‘a serious breach of etiquette” at city hall, to determine if there was enough evidence to warrant an investigation.’

“Campbell told the Times-Journal at the time he had concerns about ‘a serious breach of etiquette involving the public works community that has never been resolved.’

“The matter at hand involved alleged sexual harassment that had ‘demoralized” several employees at city hall.

“Campbell’s actions led to the firing of city treasurer Ron Cutway.”

In our conversation with Dart, he stressed the city has taken great strides over the years to beef up its respect in the workplace policies.

In documenting the most recent concerns raised by a frustrated long-time employee, has the city really made progress in providing a non-toxic workplace?

Or is it a case of a pat on the back and an assurance, “we’ve done all we can.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEKPreston

“I am happy I had this great opportunity. I made no enemies and I will truly miss my friends.”

Elgin-Middlesex-London MP Joe Preston in a statement Monday to his Parliament Hill colleagues bidding farewell to the House of Commons.

City Scope appears Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be emailed to ian.mccallum@sunmedia.ca.

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