Harassment report proves city has workplace culture problem, councillor says

Coun. Bev Esslinger said there was talk of of internal conflict and abuse among employees at city hall, but she had no idea the problem was so prolific. The complaints were often kept quiet, she said.

'We kind of knew a little but not the extent that we knew through the audit,' says Bev Esslinger

Reports of workplace abuse and harassment have surfaced at city hall, prompting to council to review its reporting policies. (John Robertson/CBC Edmonton )

A report showing that nearly one in five city employees has been harassed on the job is proof city hall has a workplace culture problem, says Coun. Bev Esslinger.

"I think it's a whole culture that we need to work on, how we respect one another and work together," Esslinger said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "And that has to permeate through every corner of the organization.

"My hope is that two years from now, we're not going to have results like this, but we're going to have a respectful workplace for everyone single person." 

Esslinger's comments came a day after council reviewed a corporate culture report released Thursday, which painted a troubling picture of harassment, threats and disrespect in the workplace.

The survey prompted a public apology from city manager Linda Cochrane and an admission from Mayor Don Iveson that council may be part of the problem.

During a scrum with reporters following Monday's meeting, Iveson promised to become a better mediator with administration and admitted that his council may be guilty of harassing behaviour toward city employees.

City council is working on its own code of conduct. Esslinger said the policy will help ensure councillors are treating staff with respect, and that there is enforcement against bad behaviour.

She admitted that exchanges between staff and council during public meetings have sometimes crossed a line.

"I think it's nerve-racking for people to come forward and I think it's always the responsibility of council to act respectfully and ask the question in an appropriate tone," she said. "Because the reality is, you can ask a question in more than one way and get the same answer."

Esslinger said there was talk of of internal conflict and abuse among employees at city hall, but she had no idea the problem was so prolific.

The complaints were often kept quiet, she said.

"Anecdotally, people came in and had said a few things, and I had ones say, 'I can't talk to you because I was told I would be fired if I talked to a councillor about this.' So we kind of knew a little, but not the extent that we knew through the audit.

She expects more employees to come forward in the coming weeks.

"I think we will see people come in and say, 'Yeah, that happened to me too,' and that's healthy. If we're going to need to get to healing and to working through this with people, we're going to have to hear from them." ​

We have a responsibility to get to the bottom of it.- Bev Esslinger

Under current policy, staff can file complaints directly to their supervisors, to human resources or to the union, but the files are always processed through an internal review. Cases can take up to a year to resolve.

Esslinger said creating a new arm's -length panel to handle the cases is the best way to transform the culture at city hall.

Council has asked staff to draft an action plan on the external reporting process by May 2018.

"I think the third-party aspect, where people can go and safely disclose, and know that it's going to be investigated and taken seriously, I think it's going to begin to build the confidence back in the employees that are experiencing that," Esslinger said.

"We have a responsibility to get to the bottom of it."​

'We're not going to fix the problem overnight'

It won't be easy to transform the toxic workplace culture seen at city hall, said Margot Ross-Graham, a management and leadership consultant who is the workplace columnist on Edmonton AM.

Most large organizations already have official policies in place to handle complaints, but policies don't always root out abusive behaviour, she said.

"Often it's systematic. It's been allowed to happen," said Ross-Graham. "I think we have to recognize that it's really hard and we're not going to fix the problem overnight.

"That's one of the challenges that many organizations are facing."

Even bringing in new management will not always solve the problem, she said. Harmful workplace dynamics that are allowed to fester create a deep distrust of management, she said.

Ross-Graham said employers need to focus on providing leadership to managers at all levels of the organization, and ensuring bullying in the workplace is addressed quickly.

"Don't bring in a new leadership and expect that just by virtue of them being there ... that everything is going to change," she said.

"The employees still don't trust that leader, even though they've been told it's going to be great, it's going to make a difference."

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC.