External firm to investigate harassment complaints from Edmonton city staff

City of Edmonton staff can now call an independent consulting firm if they feel they're being harassed, bullied or discriminated against in the workplace.

Deloitte also hired to handle complaints through new phone line

An independent consulting firm received 190 complaints since mid-November, after an audit on the city's corporate culture was released. (Lydia Neufeld/CBC)

City of Edmonton staff can now call an independent consulting firm if they feel they're being harassed, bullied or discriminated against in the workplace.

The city hired Deloitte in late December following an audit report on the city's corporate culture that recommended hiring a third party to deal with complaints.

Deloitte is also creating a set of recommendations for the city.

One in five city employees feel they have been harassed or discriminated against, a 2016 employee engagement and diversity survey shows.

Wade King, a human rights adviser from the University of Alberta, is working with the city to develop a new approach to curb harassment.

"While we await the model that will be implemented, we thought it was important to provide a safe space," King said Thursday of the complaints line.

"Deloitte will be providing that service so that while we develop a best practice moving forward we're not losing people in that time."

City manager Linda Cochrane said King is an expert in safe disclosure and will be working with the city for the next 12 months to "ensure that we develop a more complete and sustainable solution to this challenge that we have."

What is harassment?

The new learning model, based on recommendations by Deloitte, should have an education directive to teach staff and managers what harassment and discrimination are, said Cochrane and King. 

"How to approach it, how to recognize it, how to deal with it." Cochrane said.

Cochrane said the safety branch is "championing" the philosophy of standing up to inappropriate behaviour.

"That needs to be taught and needs to be encouraged," Cochrane said.

King agreed it's crucial to teach the whole organization a "common expectation and understanding of what harassment is."

That understanding would range from harassment to physical violence and include sexual harassment.

Complaints spike after survey results

After the corporate culture audit was released in mid-November, the city hired an interim consultant, ADR International Group, to receive complaints.

The firm got nearly 190 calls and resolved two-thirds of the complaints before handing the remaining 62 cases to Deloitte. 

Those cases require a formal investigation, Cochrane said, but she didn't know when they would be investigated or resolved.

"Deloitte is just receiving them, so I don't think we have a timeline for their response," Cochrane said Thursday. 
Safe disclosure expert Wade King and city manager Linda Cochrane are waiting for recommendations from Deloitte on how to deal with city harassment issues. (CBC)

The union representing about 4,100 city staff, the Civic Service Union 52, said it feels like it's in the dark about the process.

"I have a number of members who are still calling us, reluctant to file complaints," union president Lanny Chudyk told CBC News Thursday.

He said his members aren't convinced the union would be present during interviews or part of the process "to defend them."   

"We're still a bit fuzzy about whether that's being done or not being done."

However, Chudyk said the number of complaints has spiked since November. 

In previous years, he said, the city probably got between 15 and 20 complaints a year, but that didn't reflect the reality.
President of Civic Service Union 52, Lanny Chudyk, says members still aren't confident to call the new complaints line. (Civic Service Union 52)

"People didn't have trust in the system and so they weren't filing complaints," Chudyk said. "If they had a more open and a transparent and external process, you would see a lot more complaints — many many more."

Chudyk said that's what they're seeing now.

The city released a detailed breakdown of the employee engagement and diversity survey this week. The survey is conducted every two years. In 2016, 72 per cent of city staff responded to the survey.

King lauded the city's move to garner high response rates and "good robust data."

"One of the reasons the city even knows about these problems is because they have cared to ask."

Staff is expected to present Deloitte's recommendations to city council in May.