Edmonton council may be guilty of bullying, harassing staff, mayor admits

What started with an apology from the city manager to city employees who've experienced harassment or discrimination in the workplace, turned to city councillors admitting that they too may be guilty of behaving poorly toward staff.

'Individually, you're not so scary but collectively you can be,' says city manager

'I probably should have stepped in'

4 years ago
Duration 1:29
City council debates how to proceed after a report showed nearly one in five staff surveyed said they experienced harassment. 1:29

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson admits his council may be guilty of harassing behaviour toward city employees.

"We've seen some bullying and harassment and intimidation from elected officials of staff," Iveson told media outside an audit committee meeting on Monday.  

"I think unfortunately — we heard this feedback from staff in the audit — that creates a signal that that's acceptable behaviour."

The admission came on a day that started with an apology from the city manager to city employees who say they've been harassed or experienced discrimination in the workplace.

You are hard on issues and sometimes that feels like hard on people- Linda Cochrane , city manager

"For staff who've come forward in obvious pain, I am sorry," city manager Linda Cochrane said at the beginning of the audit committee meeting.

The committee met to review the corporate culture report released last Thursday, which shows nearly one in five staff who responded to a survey said they were harassed.

At city hall meetings, administration often gets grilled by councillors.

Iveson said he's going to try harder to moderate debate between council and staff to keep it respectful.
Mayor Don Iveson says he'll try to be a better mediator between council and staff. (CBC)

Coun. Andrew Knack, who is generally seen as having a moderate approach to issues before council, admitted to going "over the line" when questioning city staff on issues in the past four years.

Cochrane described how she felt having to report to council when she was a director years ago.

"[It was] long before any of you were here and I was scared to death," she said.

"You may not intend that. Individually, you're not so scary but collectively you can be."

She acknowledged the bullying may not be intentional but said that reporting to council can still be intimidating.

"You are hard on issues and sometimes that feels like hard on people."

Internal versus external

Staff can file complaints of harassment or discrimination directly to their supervisors, to human resources or to the union. However they are filed, the complaints always end up in an internal review.

Cases can take up to a year to resolve, said Lanny Chudyk, president of Civic Service Union 52. 

"It's just a bad process as it currently sits," he said.

A registered social worker, Linda Crockett, showed up at the committee meeting to urge the city to have a third-party agency run a confidential staff survey.

She suggested the city create a second panel of experts, including human resources consultants, coaches, medical experts and therapists, which would be tasked to review the survey results and monitor progress. 
Registered social worker Linda Crockett calls on the city to establish an external, third-party review process to examine harassment complaints. (CBC)

Crockett has worked with people in several industries and said she's heard cases of harassment across the board.

"They are too afraid to report the truth," she said. "They see other people have been terminated. Many people are on sick leave. That means the current policies are not working."

Coun. Tony Caterina called on staff to create a completely external process.

"I would like to see exploration of an independent solution to this versus an in-house with some external consultant," Caterina told the committee. 

"We know the trust is gone," he said. "There is no trust from employees to report — whether it's a whistle-blower hotline or any other mechanism — if it goes back to HR and an internal reporting system." 
City manager Linda Cochrane tells councillors she was 'scared to death' of reporting to council as a young director years ago. (CBC)

Cochrane said the city had been discussing the changes with unions over the past couple months.

"I will commit to continue to work with the unions, particularly now as we move into this totally independent external advisor," Cochrane said.

Chudyk said the union has made progress on the issue.

"I was a bit surprised that the city has at least entertained the thought of a completely external process," he said.

Chudyk said the union has six pending respectful workplace complaints involving several city employees.

"It remains to be seen what it's going to end up looking like," he said. "I'm encouraged that they appear to have changed some of their position on this."

Council is asking staff to come back with an action plan on the external reporting process by May, 2018.