HSR fixing 'broken' culture in unit, director says

"Poisoned environment" inhospitable to female employees is changing, says city, but expert warns that significant action has to taken for employees to know they are safe from harassment.
City management held a media conference late Wednesday to address an arbitrator's report saying a transit employee was sexually harassed. From left: HSR director Don Hull; Gerry Davis, general manager of public works; city solicitor Janice Atwood-Petkovski; Lora Fontana, director of employee and labour relations, and city manager Chris Murray. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

HSR is male dominated, but it’s “by evolution, not by design,” and it’s steadily improving, says the director of the transit service.

Last week, an arbitrator awarded a female inspector $25,000 for sexual harassment that the decision says went on for years. It referenced a “poisoned” culture where sexist comments were acceptable, and where for years, only one female was promoted to inspector.

The transit agency has traditionally been a man’s world, said Don Hull, HSR director. But that is gradually changing.

Any time things go off the rails like that, someone has to seriously sit down and take a look at it.- Eric Tuck, vice-president of ATU Local 107

A workplace harassment expert says that's what needs to happen — visible and significant action to convince staff that the workplace is a safe one.

City manager Chris Murray is also promising the city will respond to the issues raised.

The case, Murray said, “is going to be taken extremely seriously, and we’re not going to tolerate things that make people uncomfortable.

“It becomes more personal when you have your own daughter and you imagine that she would work in a place where you imagine her ability to be successful is compromised because of someone doing something incredibly thoughtless."

For years, the woman, referred to in the decision as AB, was the only female on a team of about 14 inspectors, a role that involves managing the daily traffic flow of the transit agency. And there were no women in management roles in the organization of 600 people.

In the last few months, Hull said, that’s changed. HSR has hired two female trainers, and two of its seven managers are women. HSR is also actively working to improve its culture, Hull said.

“We are actively working measurably toward correcting what is broken in that unit right now,” he said.

City had 'insensitive response'

The Sept. 18 report from arbitrator Kelly Waddingham charges that AB’s manager, Bill Richardson, sent her lewd emails and subjected her to unwanted touching and derogatory insults.

In the report, AB outlines alleged misconduct such as being called an “Irish skank” and the implication that she required hand surgery because “you haven’t had a man in over a year, so you’ve had to look after yourself.”

In her decision, Waddingham wrote that the city “failed to take even the most basic substantive measures to protect her — principally removing Mr. Richardson as her supervisor.”

In fact, Waddingham wrote, “it is reasonable to conclude that the damage to AB’s dignity, feelings and self respect was only exacerbated by the city’s half-hearted and insensitive response.”

Richardson was terminated without cause in August 2012 after 24 years with HSR. Waddingham's report said his severance was around $200,000. City manager Chris Murray wouldn't say how much the severance was, but that it was "substantially less than that."

Dismissed from job

Richardson was hired by Guelph Transit earlier this month with positive recommendations from the city. He was dismissed from the job on Tuesday.

In her testimony, AB describes how a supervisor called her early in her tenure as inspector to ask what she was wearing under her uniform. She hung up on him, and he didn’t make an inappropriate comment again.

In an interview with CBC Hamilton, AB recalled another woman — competent and experienced in their field — trying out for a role in her unit. She left, citing a “poisoned culture.”

Hull said in a media conference on late Wednesday that AB's situation continued for years before he learned the seriousness of it.

Since then, HSR has hired more trainers and held more than 1,200 training sessions with HSR’s 600-member workforce, Hull said.

'Someone has to seriously sit down and take a look at it'

The city in general is working to improve its corporate culture, Murray said. It is also following through on the arbitrator’s recommendations, including assessing its It Starts With You training course and posting its anti-discrimination policies and human rights information in HSR offices.

It’s a start, said Eric Tuck, vice-president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 107. But there’s “still a lot of work to do.”

“Any time things go off the rails like that, someone has to seriously sit down and take a look at it,” he said. “That’s what (Murray) has committed to do.”

“Hopefully we’ve opened a few eyes and done everything we can do to make sure it never happens again. Because it really shouldn’t, especially in this day in age.”

Not everyone is so sure of the cultural change. On Thursday, a self-described HSR employee took to Twitter with the name @Heckler63 to express her concern.

Changes must be visible, significant

“I would like to know that if I’m at the HSR working today…am I protected?” she tweeted.

To CBC Hamilton, she tweeted, “How can the top two guys at the HSR still have jobs today…does council not realize we have to work for them still?”

Lisa Barrow is a workplace harassment expert at Brock University’s Goodman School of Business. To move on from this, she said, HSR needs to make a visible effort to correct the situation. And employees need to be confident that harassment issues will be dealt with in a timely manner.

“What will happen is other employees will probably say ‘bravo, good for her for standing up for herself,’” Barrow said.

“However, if they don’t see any significant changes in the environment, in a few years, you’ll probably have other complaints of sexual harassment.”

The HSR case is not unique, Barrow said. Workplace harassment is common, and men and women are victims.

Many don’t speak up for fear that they will be put on “the fast track to being dismissed,” she said.

Waddingham’s 70-page decision awarded AB $25,000, including $20,000 in damages from the city for not protecting her from harassment and discrimination. AB also filed a human rights complaint, which was settled outside of the hearing.