File photo by Alec Ross,

‘They Describe A Poisoned Workplace’

As London city hall deals with an avalanche of workplace harassment complaints, the head of the London Abused Women’s Centre is calling the mayor a “failure” for his handling of the alleged abuse.

Megan Walker says, in the past week, she has received dozens of calls from City of London employees detailing harassment, abuse, and retaliation in the workplace.

“They describe a poisoned workplace. They describe being targeted by certain individuals at the City of London and harassed and abused. Others say they have stood with those who have been targeted and then faced retaliation,” said Walker. “Some employees have been working under these circumstances for a long period of time, who have mentioned that the only way they can go into work every single day is after a big cry in the morning before they arrive, sometimes tears throughout the day, and a big cry when they come home. Many of them are in counselling as a result of it.”

According to the information received by the London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC), in one department alone five of 11 employees have taken stress leave due to the ongoing situation.

Last Friday, Walker met with Mayor Matt Brown to discuss the claims. She said she disclosed specific details of the harassment allegations and made recommendations as to how the city could properly address them. Among her recommendations was for the city to hire a lawyer from outside of London to investigate and to issue an apology to the affected employees.

Walker said Brown promised to advocate for the employees at a special council meeting on Monday, after which he would update her by 5pm on the action plan created to correct the systemic issues. But at the end of the over two-hour closed-door meeting, all council would say was that “progress” had been made. Walker did not hear from Brown.

“I was sent a ‘Dear Megan’ letter from [London City Manager] Martin Hayward advising that I could bring the issues forward and a third party would investigate, which again is the exact system that has failed to work in the past,” said Walker. “To say this was a disappointment would be an enormous understatement… Matt has been a failure. He has shown no leadership and he has betrayed the employees that are the city’s most valuable asset.”

In a written statement issued late Tuesday afternoon, Brown said he would not speak to “allegations and information collected by a third party”.

“We have an obligation to our employees to keep these types of matters confidential and private and we will continue to do so,” said Brown in the statement. “Often times being a leader means dealing with difficult and sensitive information; it means working through appropriate channels and not negotiating in the media or giving in to ultimatums, but rather taking a careful look at a situation and taking appropriate action. If we need to make adjustments to our policies, we will.”

Walker told that she fears Brown did not share the full extent of the harassment allegations with council or top bureaucrats.

“When I see some people in the media reporting that [Hayward] said the allegations are vague it sends a pretty clear message to me that Matt Brown did not bring forward the specific nature of the allegations, which I can tell you are quite significant and damning,” said Walker.

Anyone experiencing workplace harassment or abuse, including men, can contact the LAWC for support, according to Walker.

Brown said significant changes have already been made in the workplace and there have been improvements, however, he added that these “improvements take time.” He also said any city hall staff member who feels they need to “reach out” can contact internal/external human resources representatives or seek support from union organizations. Employees can also contact the Labour Relations Board or the Human Rights Tribunal, Brown added.

“The #MeToo and #TimesUp movement is important and necessary. Right now, we see individuals from all sectors coming forward with stories of harassment and violence in unprecedented volumes,” said Brown. “We need to make sure our policies and practices are designed so they protect everyone.”

Media requesting interviews with Brown have been redirected to Hayward, who said city hall is “committed to ensuring a workplace that is free of harassment and discrimination of any kind”.

“We have a number of policies and procedures in place to support this – they are well-established, having been in place since the early 2000s. But they are also reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure they continue to support us in living up to our commitments to our people,” Hayward said in a statement released Monday evening.

Hayward is also encouraging staff who have experienced or witnessed behaviour that is “not aligned with our commitment to a safe workplace” to come forward.

“We take any concerns about this very seriously and will continue to take actions to ensure a safe workplace. An important part of this is creating an environment where employees can bring their concerns forward,” he said.