Hamilton

Audit of HWDSB staff shows concerns about discrimination, harassment and hiring issues

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has pledged to improve after a troubling equity audit in November showed its employees had concerns about discrimination, hiring and diversity, among other issues. 

A new report comes with 70 recommendations

Manny Figueiredo, director of eduction for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, says the board will implement recommendations from a recent bullying review and a staff equity audit that exposed multiple problems within the board. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has pledged to improve after a troubling equity audit in November showed its employees had concerns about discrimination, hiring and diversity, among other issues. 

Manny Figueiredo, HWDSB director, says the board is reflecting after an equity audit highlighted that some HWDSB work sites are not always safe and welcoming, specifically for people with disabilities, women and people of colour.

Those findings, and a recent report on bullying, are informing the work the board is doing, he said.

"We need to reflect on how our staff represent the students in front of them ... before the 2019-2020 hiring year, we were at eight to nine per cent [of staff] who reflected the diversity of our community," Figueiredo said.

"We need to strategically align that work because we know if students feel there's a caring adult, someone they can connect with, relate to, who has a similar lived experience, that is going to have a huge impact."

The audit, done by external third-party Turner Consulting Group Inc., was part of a three-year equity action plan. Turner Consulting reviewed files, held focus groups, interviewed people, held meetings, and says roughly 20 per cent of the board's workforce participated in the process.

While the audit isn't an exhaustive review of every practice used by every administrator and supervisor, Turner Consulting says it reflects the board's work culture, policies and the impact both of those have on staff. There were a total of 70 recommendations.

Throughout the report, some surveys show the board has done good work and some testimonials also reflect positively, but many comments highlighted in the report reveal a different reality.

Discrimination and harassment at work

One survey in the report showed 41 per cent of staff surveyed said they experienced discrimination at work during the last two years. Sixty-three per cent said they experienced harassment. Roughly a quarter said they saw or heard subtle insensitivities or overt examples of discrimination and harassment.

"Many of those interviewed noted that the culture of the HWDSB is not inclusive of employees from diverse communities, backgrounds, and identities. They noted that on a regular basis, employees are exposed to microaggressions and inappropriate behaviours that go unaddressed," read the report.

"Many felt that when they do raise issues of harassment, their concerns are often not taken seriously or they are told that they are overreacting ... some board and union leaders stated that they recognize that many employees experience harassment but are afraid to make a complaint because they fear repercussions."

One of the surveys from HWDSB's equity audit shows staff have experienced discrimination and harassment at work. (HWDSB)

Comments from staff allege sexual harassment and many forms of discrimination.

Still, some staff members did feel the board does a good job of promoting a positive environment and addressing harassment concerns.

But the report showed there seems to be confusion about if the union or the board handles the complaints. It also states some employees felt they wouldn't have union support if they were complaining because of the actions of another union member.

'Little faith' in fair hiring and promotion

When it comes to hiring, results from surveys indicate workers "have little faith that the process is fair and bias free."

The results showed roughly a third of employees polled felt the hiring process isn't fair or consistent. More than half of them felt nepotism and favouritism influenced hiring, and 42 per cent felt those who make hiring decisions have personal biases that affect their choices.

With that, also came concerns about a lack of diversity. The audit states survey respondents felt people of colour didn't have the same opportunities to get hired or rise through the ranks as others.

"Survey respondents expressed frustration and disappointment that while the population of Hamilton has become increasingly diverse over the past few decades, the HWDSB has not made efforts to reflect this diversity in the hiring of teachers, employees, and leaders," read the audit.

There were also comments of an "old boys' club" and "white boys' club" in terms of HWDSB leadership.

Still, generally speaking, most people polled positively about advancement opportunities.

HWDSB is starting 'equity journey'

The report said the majority of the board and union leaders who spoke with Turner Consulting said HWDSB is just beginning its "equity journey" to add more equity and inclusion into its policies and workplace culture.

They said multiple false starts over the years have prevented it from happening sooner.

Poll results showed the majority of staff who responded feel they have positive daily workplace experiences, but there were comments that leadership need to "deepen their understanding of the issues and increase their personal commitment to making change."

"We found that not all were in support of these efforts. In fact, some individuals shared that they don't believe that employees from diverse communities, backgrounds, and identities have experienced issues within the organization and that the HWDSB was doing better than most organizations," the report said.

HWDSB has taken a number of steps to improve equity and inclusion in its schools, including a recent bullying review. (Christopher Langenzarde/CBC)

The 70 recommendations call for more training and various changes to the plans and policies that add more inclusion and specificity into them.

In December 2020, HWDSB trustees approved a plan to implement the recommendations in a three-phased approach from January 2021 to June 2022.

"The audit and action plan are important milestones as we seek to embed equity and inclusion throughout our organization," Figueiredo said.

"We know that systemic change is critical, and we are prepared to challenge the status quo so that our staff reflects the identity and lived experiences of the changing Hamilton community that we serve."

He also said on Monday that almost 20 per cent of HWDSB are now representative of diverse communities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.

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