'Everyone is very sad:' Workplace survey reveals dismal public works culture

A new survey of the workplace culture in the city's embattled public works department reveals a dismal workplace of unhappy, disenchanted workers with little faith in their managers and little belief things can improve.

In the survey the city scored lower than 99 per cent of other companies surveyed

A new survey shows low morale and "nothing to save" about the workplace culture for roads and waste collection crews.

A new survey of the workplace culture in the city's embattled public works department reveals a dismal workplace of unhappy, disenchanted workers with little faith in their managers and little belief things can improve.

The survey, a copy of which was obtained by CBC Hamilton, shows that in many of the areas measured, the city scored lower than 99 per cent of other companies that have been surveyed.

Not one day in the last five years of work I have not dreaded going to work.- Roads worker

The survey follows two scandalous years for city roads and waste collection workers and paints a picture of a workforce where inexperienced people are promoted, morale is low and there is "nothing to preserve" about where they work.

It also comes in the wake of a damning labour arbitrator's report that said the department had a "culture of low expectations."

A city-hired consultant surveyed 371 workers at various public works yards in February. The results show that many liked their co-workers but felt disrespected by management.

"Not one day in the last five years of work I have not dreaded going to work," one worker wrote.

Lowest percentile

Denison Consulting used its culture survey to match city survey responses with the roughly 1,000 other organizations it has surveyed. In many cases, Hamilton's results were in the lowest percentile compared to other organizations.

For example, in statements such as "most employees are highly involved in their work," Hamilton scored in the bottom one percentile. It was the same with adopting new ways of doing things, setting realistic goals, and leaders and supervisors practicing what they preach, among other questions.

I  have see n them take steps to make things better. But nothing can change overnight.- Sandra Walker, president of CUPE 5167

Workers were candid in their responses.

"I would like to have a workplace that's free of alcohol and drug abuse," one worker said.

"There is nothing positive within our workplace," another wrote. "Everyone is very sad." 

Others complained of "hiring of non-experienced personnel to positions of hierarchy," a "practice of nepotism which is rampant and discouraging" and having six managers in 14 years.

Sandra Walker, president of CUPE 5167, was surprised by some of those words.

"Wow," she said. "I don't even know that I have a reaction."

The city is working to fix its broken culture, she said. So the survey and other efforts are good. Over time, she said, conditions will improve. 

'Nothing can change overnight'

"I have seen them take steps to make things better," she said. "But nothing can change overnight."

Coun. Sam Merulla, chair of the public works committee, reacted strongly to the survey, calling it "fiction."

The city is changing its culture, he said, and not everyone will be happy about it.

The job, he said, has an "above average wage, above average benefits, and a job security unknown in the private sector. We're asking for a full day's work and accountability. We're changing a culture that has obviously seen a lot of headlines. If people aren't happy about that, they can find a job somewhere else."

He plans to introduce a motion putting a moratorium on surveys that he says aren't based on "a scientific formula that creates a margin of error."

The Denison model involves surveying workers on more than 50 points, then comparing them to about 1,000 other organizations to reach a percentile. Merulla called the method "not scientifically sound."

"I think it's all fiction until we scientifically prove it's not," he said of the results. "We don't know what the motivation surrounding their answers are. It could be everyone we suspended."

The survey results are the latest in a series of very public examples of issues in the public works department, particularly with roads and waste collection workers.

In early 2013, the city fired and suspended as many as 30 roads workers for allegations of time theft and breach of trust, saying workers often only worked a handful of hours a day. The investigation involved nearly 50 public works employees, including nearly 20 managers or supervisors.

I would say the results were not necessarily a surprise.- Mike Kirkopoulos, city spokesperson

CUPE 5167 grieved 21 firings and four suspensions. In late April, arbitrator Lorne Slotnick ordered the city to hire nine employees back with no back pay, on probation for two years. Five will be reinstated with some back pay, while six employees remain terminated. He cited a "culture of low expectations." 

Six supervisors, meanwhile, are awaiting an arbitration hearing. 

Then last year, a Hamilton Spectator report revealed that city waste collection crews were working fewer hours than their private counterparts. The city said the public crews work faster, albeit while accumulating more injuries.

City says it's working on improvement

There have been other incidents. The city fired two workers who brought a pot brownie to work and gave it to another co-worker, making him ill.

City manager Chris Murray wasn't available for comment on Thursday. But he's spoken numerous times about the need to fix the city's culture, and pledged to improve it. He has said that process has already begun.

Staff are getting more training and workshops, and the city hosts twice-yearly management team meetings, said Mike Kirkopoulos, city spokesperson.

The Denison survey — which has also been used by Public Health — is to drive "honest conversations," Kirkopoulos said.

"I would say the results were not necessarily a surprise," he said. "It's necessary feedback. We had a large number of responses from all staff and must now work to address what we heard."

'We have some work to do'

The results mean "we have some work to do," he said. "This information will help us focus on our immediate needs and work upwards from there."

The city will spend this year developing an action plan and interpreting the Denison results.

Here are some highlights:

  • Hamilton scored in the bottom one percentile on the following items: improving the workforce, cooperating with other areas, adopting new techniques, viewing employees as an important competitive advantage, and leaders "practicing what they preach."
  • Hamilton fared better on members knowing what the customer wants, customer input influencing decisions and knowing that there is a right and wrong way to do things.
  • Hamilton also scored low on having long-term direction, having a clear strategy, and consistency in the workplace.
  • Most workers said they liked their coworkers and the sense of teamwork. "The only aspect I would like to keep is the pride our employees have in doing their work," one wrote. Another wrote that "no matter how many times we are hit, we keep fighting."



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