London needs strong leadership to root out harassment, expert says

A workplace bullying and harassment expert who previously worked for the City of London says recent problems at the city could be the beginning of a tide of change.

Catherine Burr was hired by the city to deal with harassment and bullying in 2002

Is there a culture of bullying and harassment at city hall? (Google Maps)

A workplace bullying and harassment expert who previously worked for the City of London says recent problems at the city could be the beginning of a tide of change. 

Catherine Burr was hired in 2002 to help clean up a culture of harassment at the city. She left less than a year later.

"I don't really know why they hired me," Burr told CBC News. 

She was hired in the wake of a sexual assault scandal in which one employee was criminally charged after an assault on another employee. It was the city's response, or lack of it, to harassment claims that lead to her hiring. 

Sixteen years later, Burr is watching as the City of London is dealing with yet another harassment problem. 

The London Abused Women's Centre says it got 29 calls last week from employees who have been harassed or who fear retaliation from city managers for speaking out. That forced a closed-door council meeting and responses from the mayor's office, the city manager, the London Professional Fire Fighters Association and employees' unions. 

"It's absolutely critical that there is serious commitment from the leaders of the organization," Burr said. "And unless you have that, it's not going to change. When I worked there, the leaders said they were committed but certainly they were not." 

'Culture change'

The political and administrative leadership must buy into a culture change, Burr said, but politicians must be given information from senior staff. 

"The politicians depend on what they're told, so what is the administration telling them? Do they need to have someone or some entity outside of the issue come in and do an assessment and bring back some findings?" 

Sometimes, an external investigator has to be brought in to find out "what the issues are, how severe they are, how broad they are and to provide protection for those who are otherwise fearful," Burr said. 

I thnk they could change in a realistic, sincere way. But it might take a crisis to change it.- Catherine Burr

The hiring of Martin Hayward as city manager and Bill Coxhead as the head of human resources has signaled a change in top management, Burr said. Both have good reputations, she added. 

"I think they could change it in a realistic, sincere way. But it might take a crisis to change it. I don't know."