2020 depa awards for the Worst HR in Local Government

This is the 12th year that the prestigious and envied Golden Turd will be awarded.

How’s HR been this year?

2020 is a year to forget. Bushfires, flooding, climate change evidence everywhere but still deniers, and then a world pandemic that started quietly in February and March continues nearly everywhere and in Europe and the US rolls on, vengeful, punishing of those not taking it seriously and with an unbelievable death toll. In the US they are already well past 300,000 deaths.

COVID-19 was always going to provide a challenge to us. LGNSW and the three unions in record time (a fortnight!) developed a Splinter Award to protect employees, provide flexibility to move people into jobs that would still be done and continue employment which, together with NSW Government funding, meant that everyone continued in employment. Sure, councils encouraged employees with too much accumulated leave to take some (always the employer’s fault anyway for mismanaging it) but the job losses were minimal and generally related to pre-existing financial problems.

A novice GM at Lismore (but one not lacking in confidence) went off prematurely advising three of our members that they would be made redundant, then had to withdraw that advice and go through the process properly - making it a more unpleasant way to lose your job.

Cumberland wanted the unions to agree to employees forfeiting some entitlements which were individual entitlements anyway, and if anyone was going to forfeit them, it had to be the individual employees. Our members rejected the general approach and invited the Council to individually request the sacrifices be made, because that was the right way of doing it, but the Council chose not to...

The City of Sydney, consistent with being nominated more than any other Council in these awards (six times prior to this year) decided to pay the July State Award increase by administrative action and at the same time advise all staff that there would be no progression this year in the salary system. While they might have been working hard in the performance year about to end, that was tough and those who would normally be recommended for that progression won’t get anything - affecting, according to HR at the City, up to 1000 employees. Lovely. Very motivating.

Then there were issues with councils failing to move employees to work remotely. Clarence Valley was slow, of course, and at Bayside not only did their triage team call the pandemic over on 29 June with congratulations in their last newsletter, “We made it to the other side!”, then in shades of Dumb and Dumber, the Council ignored the advice about social distancing by stating “there is no requirement when desks are facing opposite directions. In fact it is actually safer than desks side-by-side as breathing/sneezes are in opposite directions”!  It sounded like a hoax, or an HR joke, but it wasn’t.  Thanks, Dilbert…

And Sutherland, because it seems the CEO just can’t help herself, a polite email from depa to the HR Manager Amanda Edwards encouraging a speedier relocation of employees to home was handed for action to the CEO - who then thought it made sense to frogmarch our delegate up the street and point out the queues outside Centrelink, to establish that she was trying to avoid that.

Our poor delegate didn’t even know we’d emailed the HR manager (whose contribution is always immeasurable) and found it all largely inexplicable. No wonder we picked up 24 new members in three months after the CEO had been appointed.

Otherwise, Councils did what they could, staff took equipment home or used their own devices, local government services continued without interruption, and more safely from home. This established once and for all that those old farts hostile to employees working from home won’t be able to simply assert that productivity is compromised, or that employees can’t be properly supervised, because the evidence is in and it all worked seamlessly. And yes, that includes you lot at Mid Coast.

That will be our big issue for 2021. Building on the evidence that employees can work effectively from home. Here is a link to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week about the division between employers and employees over working from home rules.

And finally, the three unions and LGNSW were able to negotiate a new Local Government State Award to operate from 1 July and a pay increase of 1.5%. We thought that a good deal and in the month prior to making the Award we were anxious that the Full Bench of the IRC was also arbitrating a pay claim by the public sector unions in the face of a NSW Government refusing to pay anything. There was a chance it could have affected us, but we were able to provide independent economic advice that the increase would be positive, rather than negative to the economy of the State and was consistent with the IRC’s obligations.

But got away with it we did, and our colleagues in the public sector, including those working in bushfire, flood and COVID management were given a miserable 0.3%. That made our Award look even better.

We have listed a few councils already who probably fall short of a full nomination. We could have added Lake Macquarie, because they have demonstrated again (as they did to be nominated in 2016) they’re not very good at handling an investigation, they can be seriously insensitive in managing staff and indoctrinating them in the new ways of doing things, the new language they use and organisation charts with circles!

Now the dishonourable mentions are out of the way, there are four nominations:

Campbelltown

 

Jim Baldwin is Campbelltown’s Director of City Development and has been for more than 25 years. He’s worked for a number of GMs over that time, so he’s clearly doing something right, but it certainly isn’t looking after his own staff, and the Council’s obligations to them.

Campbelltown has been nominated twice, in 2016 and won it in 2018. In 2016 it was all about a succession of consultants’ reports identifying understaffing and a failure by the Director to act; a  general notoriety for taking two years or more to fill vacancies; the longest-running restructure in the world had a member acting in a managerial role as a temporary appointment for more than double the 12 months provided as an absolute limit in the Local Government Act; when Jim did try to get the recruitment happening, policies and protocols went out the window, candidates were invited for interviews without identifying what the interview was for (and one occasion it was for two positions, as a bit of a surprise); an employee acting in a manager’s job twice, for two years each time and eventually not getting the job, and when he appealed, he responded to a request for an “interview” that turned out to be his appeal.

A significant lack of respect for employees, Jim.

In 2018 it was Jim again and we acted for two members being made redundant rather than take bigger jobs for no more money, or lesser jobs, and where one of the Managers hadn’t been provided with a performance review by Jim for three years! And when he did take the redundancy, the Council wouldn’t let him stay for the few weeks to celebrate 30 years there! Not quite as bad for the other Manager we acted for, but disrespected and mismanaged as well.

This year we acted for a third manager - this one had agreed in 2017 to take on some additional responsibilities from another job they were making redundant - nine staff and responsibility for $25 million a year of waste contracts - when he agreed, Jim was going to fix up his salary and now, three years later, after multiple reminders that drove our member into the ground, he finally got something. But he had to get us to act, and for a person totally committed to the Council it was uncomfortable for him to get the union in, as it were, because the Council was failing to do the right thing.

We make all of our best decisions with hindsight but everyone can learn from this. If the Council wants you to do more work, to take on more responsibilities, don’t forget the famous line, “show me the money”! Get it all cleared up right from the start.

We finally settled but not as much as it should have been and when the Council agreed to a special allowance “in recognition of your service in the capacity of Manager”, while the allowance applied from January 2017, the Council refused to increase it in line with movements in the State Award - meaning that each year, it reduced in value. Really, why quibble over such small amounts of money.

Campbelltown doesn’t index their market allowances (and it’s about time that some of the co-dependents out there decided to do something about that) but HR specifically made our proposal that it be indexed from 2017 to the GM, who rejected it, agreeing only that it would be indexed from the 1 July 2021 increase. All this fuss for $445 over three years! Really, Lindy!

It must be hard to keep your motivation up, particularly as a loyal employee who wanted only to do the right thing by the Council, but some important lessons have been learned, and will be salutary for others there:

  • Campbelltown doesn’t value you as much as you value their reputation,
  • they will take advantage of you and make you do all the hard work for as little as they can,
  • being devoted to the Council doesn’t mean you get treated fairly
  • if its your own entitlements, don't waste your time talking to Big Jim.

Narrabri

Yes, yes, we are sufficiently imaginative to find a new image for the multi-faceted Stewart Todd - GM extraordinaire and President of Local Government Professionals (sic) - but here is one last fling. Well, probably.

And yes, everyone knows about how he sacked Tony Meppem and then when we filed a section 106 Unfair Contracts in the Supreme Court, argued that the Court didn’t have jurisdiction to deal with it - and lost, and had our costs awarded against the Council.

The exercise did confirm the Supreme Court had jurisdiction but that taking section 106 action in the Supreme Court, while prohibitively expensive, is even more prohibitively slow. Almost a year from the hearing to the handing down of a judgement confirming the jurisdiction. 

In the meantime, GM Todd made the Manager of Environment redundant (happy to flee to the relative safety of Tweed) and then, the Manager of Building decided he’d had enough of life under the benign leadership of GM Todd and fled to Moree.

That’s a lot of expertise and experience gone with those three.

And it wasn’t just our members having problems. The USU acted for one member who had filed a grievance alleging bullying, and in the process GM Todd agreed with the USU to sign a Joint Statement against Bullying, something he never did, and then he restructured and made that employee redundant as well...

It’s a miracle there are any professional staff doing the health, planning and environmental work at all. So GM Todd, who won it last year, gets a nomination this year as well.

He almost deserves two nominations, one for being responsible for HR at Narrabri, and another in his role at Local Government Professionals (sic) you know, the old Local Government Poseurs, doing his best to retain standard contracts for senior staff other than general managers and then wanting to make some changes to the GM contract. Self-interest is clearly a great motivator.

And it still fascinates we spectators in the industry that members of Local Government Poseurs, the overwhelming majority of whom are not general managers, think it makes sense to voluntarily be a member of an organisation so hostile to continuing employment, and not term employment, at all levels in a Council. And the defence of a contract that allows people to be sacked “for any reason”, without a requirement for prior mediation and advice, or recourse to a speedy and practical tribunal.

Snowy Valleys

Last year Snowy Valleys GM Matthew Hyde was nominated for the unprecedented action of sacking all three directors - completely without warning and under the “for any other reason” 38 weeks’ pay provision of the unfair standard contract - and all to clear the decks for a new structure. What it did was remove three long-standing, highly experienced and well-respected senior staff with significant local government and corporate knowledge. It also cost the local community more than $350,000 in termination payments and more than a year later the restructure remains a work in progress.

This year Mr Hyde decided that the position of Division Manager Development & Environment could be merged to take over additional responsibilities and staffing but with no extra money. Clearly an unacceptable option and on this occasion the employee concerned, with more than 40 years of building surveyor experience, became another redundancy.

There is a pattern here, isn’t there. Experienced people, significant losses, and significant costs to the community.

Our positions have remained unfilled for up to 12 months. Even an employee leaving with six months’ notice so the Council could find a replacement doesn’t get a recruitment process happening in time for a replacement, and at the same time, the expectation that the work continues to get done with reduced resourcing.

Two experienced members have just resigned from the Council, both complaining that the director doesn’t understand their legislative obligations and one having been told they are “too legalistic”. It’s hard not to be legalistic when everything you do is governed by law.

There are complaints about the obvious staffing shortages; failures to recruit and the stress on remaining staff; obsolete policies and procedures; a lack of commitment to the Council’s core values of “Respect, Safety and Integrity” (!); significant delays in undertaking performance reviews; no respect for the timeliness required by the Award for reviews and progression; a failure to communicate to internal applicants left wondering what is happening as jobs get advertised, then removed; a continued lack of respect for experienced technical/professional staff and the value they can provide mentoring and advising; no communication about proposed changes to PD’s, nor to the responses of staff to them, and a general failure of communication in all aspects of the operations of the Council.

That’s a terrible list but also being told by the Executive Director of Community and Corporate, a director without qualifications in the areas being managed, that employees are “overly constrained by legislation and need to learn how to step outside it... quick to disregard matters not being part of their role... and difficult to deal with”. Charming.

The Council has just lost one of their last two accredited certifiers. Accredited certifiers have a parallel accountability - to the Council as their employer but also to the BPB/Fair Trading as a condition of their accreditation. The accreditation regime requires that certain things be done to remain accredited but Snowy Valleys is failing in its obligation to compile and supply mandatory data.

Look out Matthew, one day Fair Trading will come a-knocking.

All of these are significant staff management and HR failures for which the GM must take responsibility. Matthew is also a member of the Board of Local Government Poseurs and with a track record like this, and starting with sacking three senior staff, the next thing we’ll hear is that he’s been appointed President!

Sutherland

CEO Manjeet Grewal and former Mayor Councillor Pesce

We began the year with a member being told that the Council wanted to remove her position from the structure and make her redundant. Originally employed more than a decade ago as a Change Manager to assist a restructure, she had remained, with the Council taking advantage of her exceptional managerial skills to take whatever job the Council wanted her to do, and do it extremely effectively. She was, as they say, great talent and it seemed inexplicable that after all these years they would want to get rid of her.

That was an unpleasant start. At the time she was relieving in a position of Tree Team Leader managing what is one of the most political issues the Council deals with each year with more than 4000 tree issues. This, along with DAs was not normally dealt with by the Council until the new CEO Manjeet Grewal thought it made sense to reintroduce tree issues for council involvement. They now occupy around 30% of every Council meeting - about the only time the two sides get to have a go at each other.

As the year continued, our member was made redundant but in a process that was poorly managed by HR and the CEO. First, the position of Tree Team Leader was being filled extremely capably and since she was removed, the Council has, because of their stupidity, had to advertise the job four times, with each successive ad raising the salary to attract some decent candidates. They had been told, of course, by people who knew what they were talking about, right from the start that they needed to pay more to attract. Four separate ads and recruitment processes, a vacant position for nearly a year, and all of the reduced efficiency and cost that involves. HR wasn’t listening and clearly didn’t understand the concept of a market.

Then, when there was an opportunity to be seconded to a related grant-based activity run by a related trust, the Council refused, insisting that she leave as a redundant employee, or transfer across to that new job and forfeit her redundancy payments, even though the job was only guaranteed for two years. A bit rough, did you say?

Then, the spectacle of our delegate being marched up the street by the CEO with her grim determination to point out to him the queues of those recently out of work while she was trying to keep him out of just such a queue. She wasn’t trying very hard to keep her “casuals” off the queue because this folly was almost immediately followed by the removal of employment for casuals across that wide range of activities affected by the NSW Government’s Public Health Order  - around 300 employees. We supported the USU and their dispute in the Commission pursuing appropriate redundancies for people who had been called casuals but had often been employed more than five, ten or more years. For reasons none of us understand, the CEO felt obliged in the IRC to explain that she had consulted with depa, when what she actually meant was she had dragged our delegate up the street. No one can believe she thought that appropriate behaviour.

And while this is going on 24 new members joined depa, all alarmed at the treatment of our member with her redundancy, the news about our totally innocent delegate and then, the piece de resistance, exposing the CEO, the HR Manager Amanda Edwards and even the Director of Development Peter Barber, that offensive phone call on 4 June by Councillor Carmelo Pesce, the Mayor at the time, with its unacceptable language and tone, the lead story in our November issue.

In 2017 when Councillor Pesce had similarly abused a member of ours, the GM at the time Scott Phillips (come back, Scott!) recognised that the behaviour was unacceptable, a breach of the Code of Conduct and inappropriate. And within 24-hours of our member making a complaint, had the Mayor meet with the GM and the member, apologise that he shouldn’t have done what he did, he’d been having a bad day, and it wouldn’t happen again.

So, when it did happen again with the Mayor in a conversation to a different member of ours on 4 June, there was already a precedent set to get the Mayor to acknowledge his unacceptable behaviour and apologise. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, not much happened. We became involved, a dispute was filed; there were two compulsory conferences in the IRC that, because the Council wanted this all to be entirely confidential, were confidential; a Conduct Reviewer was contracted to conduct an investigation into four potential breaches of the Code of Conduct and the process went on and on. All the time with limited advice to us and the member concerned about what was happening when all we really wanted was to have Councillor Pesce (by this stage the former Mayor) recognise he had done the wrong thing, apologise to our member and get on with it. You still owe him an apology, Carmelo.

Employees deserve better protection than this from the CEO and HR. It is unacceptable that the CEO would fob off legitimate concerns of her staff right from the beginning. It should have been fixed in June. And after a preliminary finding by the Conduct Review telling us there was nothing to see here, she’d dealt with the matter, she’d spoken to the former Mayor, and that was that. No apology. No acknowledgement. End of story, as far as she’s concerned.

This won’t be the end of the Sutherland story.

Sutherland wins our 2020 award for having the worst HR in Local Government

It was daylight second really, with a broad range of failures in HR, a plummeting morale among staff and a chronic failure to protect employees and provide a safe workplace. An apology, and some kind of acknowledgement would have resolved the issue far more effectively.

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