Corp Comm Connects

Investigation finds ‘flawed’ HR practices at Toronto Community Housing
Oct. 11, 2019
Jennifer Pagliaro

An independent law firm has found flaws with Toronto Community Housing’s human resources practices as part of an internal probe into the troubled housing provider.

The 37-page summary of the long-awaited report from Toronto firm Rubin Thomlinson was released publicly by TCH on Thursday morning after the board met privately Wednesday to discuss the findings. The full report has not been released, with TCH citing confidentiality promised to participants.

The flaws identified largely related to how HR investigations of complaints were handled. The firm did not find evidence to support other specific allegations of employees being maliciously targeted.

In January 2018, the Star reported on a “culture of fear” described by one current manager and five former employees they said left them and their colleagues feeling bullied and harassed.

While the report summary by Rubin Thomlinson found complainants had a “profound lack of trust” in the housing agency’s HR department, the firm said they only saw a “small snapshot” of the work they do and did not identify any broader systemic issues.

“Nonetheless, many of the concerns that we heard were genuine and legitimate, and we are hopeful that -- through consideration of them -- (TCH) will be able to identify best practices that could be put in place,” the report summary says.

The investigation was started after several people made complaints to the city’s independent ombudsman. As an office of “last resort,” ombudsman Susan Opler told TCH in a letter that she was giving the city corporation the chance to hire a third-party investigator, the summary says.

The report is the result of an 18-month investigation that began when the law firm was hired by TCH in December 2017. According to the summary, the investigation included interviews with 18 individuals whose complaints are said to have formed the basis of the probe. The summary also says specific allegations were made against three employees who worked as managers in the human resources department, all of whom responded in writing. Two of three agreed to in-person interviews, the summary says.

In a statement, TCH chair Tim Murphy says the board “fully endorses the Rubin Thomlinson report and has directed management to take appropriate action to implement its recommendations immediately.”

He thanked those that took part in the review and TCH staff.

“This is an important step in helping us improve as an organization as we seek to operate in the best interest of our tenants.”

The report found that HR failed to investigate when an employee informally reported feeling fearful of a colleague; that employees responding to allegations about them in the workplace were not told specifics in advance of meeting investigators; that an employee in one case didn’t know why she was meeting with an investigator; and that those complaining about others were not informed until after an investigation had concluded that their own conduct had been called into question.

In two cases, the summary says that the outcome of investigations was “predetermined” before those being investigated were allowed to respond.

“In both cases, we found that fact sheets to support termination were filled out prior to the investigation being complete,” the summary says.

In one case, witnesses described the termination as a “forgone conclusion.”

“We found as a fact that the (TCH) employee in that case could not have been given a meaningful opportunity to respond to the allegations when the minds of the majority of those involved had already been made up,” the summary says.

The firm called two investigations “flawed,” saying key witnesses were not interviewed, some allegations were not subject to findings of fact and all relevant policies were not considered.

Rubin Thomlinson noted that in the course of their investigation, TCH adopted new procedures for dealing with workplace harassment and complaints and that those new policies “recognize the importance of providing respondents with a meaningful opportunity to address allegations against them.”

Not providing employees with advance notice or details of the allegations against them means they were “denied fairness and an adequate opportunity to respond to the concerns raised about their conduct,” the summary says.

In its conclusion, the law firm noted that TCH’s new procedures for dealing with complaints, if followed, “could address many of the concerns raised in this report.” They recommended the wording of one policy, that TCH “may” rather than “must” inform respondents in advance of the allegations against them should be reviewed.

The law firm looked into other findings, including about TCH using surveillance to investigate its employees, which the corporation acknowledged. However, the summary says there was no evidence the use of surveillance violates TCH policy or that it was used to target employees who are tenants, as alleged.

In looking into another allegation that an employee promised a manager title was then subject to “blacklisting,” the firm found that claim “purely speculative,” saying that the employee involved was given a “reasonable explanation” for why their title was not changed.

Opler, the ombudsman, who originally received employee complaints, said her office is “still considering the results of the independent investigation and will also review (TCH’s) response to it.”

TCH said the cost of the Rubin Thomlinson investigation was roughly $250,000.

TCH, which is responsible for 110,000 tenants and has an ongoing repairs backlog plaguing its aging buildings, has faced much turmoil in recent years. It was again embroiled in controversy over its senior leadership this year after CEO Kathy Milsom was fired. That matter, now subject to a lawsuit, is still before the courts.