Investigation into TCH’s human resources practices flags employee ‘distrust’ but dismisses most complaints

After an 18-month investigation into Toronto Community Housing’s (TCH) human resources practices, a workplace investigator is recommending that the public housing agency take new steps to rebuild trust with its employees.

The investigation looked into more than 30 complaints brought forward against three HR managers by current and former staff, only a few of which were substantiated, according to a summary of the final report.

TCH hired the workplace investigation firm Rubin Thomlinson to look into the allegations back in December 2017, after the city ombudsman informed the housing corporation of complaints from employees.

TCH is the second largest public housing agency in North America — behind the one in New York City — with roughly 110,000 residents living across its 2,100 buildings. More than 1,600 people work at the agency.

The external report is based on interviews with 18 complainants, including a veteran employee who accused HR of using surveillance to collect negative information about her.

CBC Toronto previously reported that TCH spent more than $18,000 on private investigators between 2016 and 2018  — and at least some of those tax dollars went towards surveillance of its own employees, including two long-term employees who were fired after investigations that included “other surveillance.”

Like most of the complaints investigated by Rubin Thomlinson, the workplace investigator found that the actions of HR staff were justified in the case of the veteran employee.

In her report, Michelle Bird found the surveillance was a “response to legitimate behaviour and performance concerns identified by [the employee’s] Director.”

No advanced notice of allegations

Although with the same complainant Bird also highlights one of the few substantial problems she found with the public housing agency’s HR practices.

According to the report, the former employee wasn’t told about the concerns about her performance before she was summoned to a meeting where she was expected to respond to the allegations. Instead the veteran employee was “confronted with a number of very serious accusations against her, told of the concerns, asked to respond to them, and then terminated in the same meeting.”

As a result, Bird found that the complainant was not given a “meaningful opportunity to respond” and was “denied fairness by not being given advance notice of the allegations against her.”

Other issues raised by the workplace investigator included employees not being told about findings made about their conduct, the quality of some investigation reports into staff, and blurring the line between an ongoing investigation and making a decision to fire an employee.

Complainants ‘felt unsupported’

The report also noted that the central theme of the allegations investigated was a “distrust in TCH’s investigation process.”

So the report found that TCH needs to work to rebuild trust with employees given that complainants “expressed that they felt unsupported — and even targeted — by the very people who they believed were supposed to form a support system within their workplace.”

In a statement CEO Kevin Marshman said he fully accepts the findings of the report and believes many of the concerns raised have been addressed through a workplace harassment program and a new procedure for staff complaints introduced last year.

“We will take appropriate action to address the remaining recommendations and review our harassment program and complaints procedure in light of Rubin Thomlinson’s recommendations,” said Marshman.

It remains unclear how much TCH spent on the 18-month long external investigation.

CBC Toronto filed a freedom of information request for the sum of invoices paid to Rubin Thomlinson for the investigation — but the public housing agency refused to disclose the total dollar figure.

An appeal of that decision with the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario is ongoing.

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