Employees report culture of disrespect, harassment and gender inequality
Edmonton’s communications team held a sharing circle last year to understand why the branch had such low morale.
There were tears. Some blamed workplace harassment and disrespect, saying there was bullying in the city and among the clients they serve that wasn’t being dealt with.
But the employees saw no evidence city officials dealt with those bullies in 2016. Instead, two months later, they sent the whole communications branch to respectful workplace training.
“Why were we sent to that? That’s such a punch in the face,” said one employee, trying to explain why staff morale is so low in corporate communications.
City officials celebrate small increases in morale and corporate culture citywide. But a branch-level look at the city’s employee engagement survey shows some areas are doing much better than others. Corporate communications ranked the worst.
That means those selling the city’s vision are the least likely to have any faith it will come true.
In the September 2016 survey, just 27 per cent responded “Yes” to the question: “I have trust and confidence in my branch’s leadership team’s ability to achieve the city’s goals.”
Thirty-one per cent of the 82 staff members in corporate communications who answered the survey gave a vote of confidence to the department-level leadership — and 46 per cent gave a vote of confidence in the city manager and her team.
Several current and former employees said the problems include harassment and genderdiscrimination, bullying behaviour from some clients they work for outside communications, and a lack of city-wide understanding for strategic planning skills they have. They aren’t just highly paid editing staff.
“There was this culture of (clients) being able to speak with us in any way they wanted. I was at the whim of people who didn’t even know what my profession was,” said one woman, afraid to use her name for fear it would impact her job.
She said she’d be criticized at large meetings, get yelled at, and have people go behind her back to her supervisor.
“It was demoralizing. You felt no one had your back,” she said. “No one was willing to sit down with these higher-ups and clarify our roles.”
Another left after years of seeing man after man get promoted and feeling like the deck was stacked against her. The department mostly employs women.
“It was awful. My mental health deteriorated over the ... years I was there,” she said. “I tried everything in my power to figure out what I was doing wrong and it had nothing to do with me.”
“Oh, the stories I could tell,” said another woman, who still works in the department. But she said it feels like it has been slowly improving. “I feel there’s genuine goodwill. There’s a genuine desire to do well by us. I’m optimistic.”
The branch is under new management. Director Carolyn Campbell started in May 2016, and branch manager Mary Sturgeon took her role in November 2016.
Campbell said she’s certainly heard the concerns.
“Where communications needs to do a lot of work is on role clarity,” she said. “The understanding that your communications partner is your strategic thinker, has a role at your executive table.”
As for hiring and a gender bias, she promised oversight.
“My entire career has been dedicated to leadership and growing women,” she added, saying that recent hires have been the best of a very diverse group of candidates.
At the leadership level, the branch now has five men and eight women in director, branch manager and deputy city manager roles.
For harassment, “there are concerns across the world right now. It is a sad international story we’re hearing right now with #metoo,” said Campbell, referring to a discussion across social media where people are speaking about sexual abuse.
She’s hopeful a new process for dealing with harassment complaints at the city will help, she said.
Complaints will go straight to city manager Linda Cochrane before being investigated, she said: “We want to make sure we have line-of sight at the executive leadership team.”
It was awful. My mental health deteriorated over the ... years I was there.
Carolyn Campbell, the director of the city’s communications branch since 2016, says she is aware of ongoing staff concerns in her department.