Who has the worst HR in local government in 2015?

 

Our special issue in December each year is always one of our most popular. Eagerly awaited, a willingness by members to back their own HR against all comers, not a lot of accolades floating in or happy stories, and an interest across the industry and elsewhere. The general interest is  well beyond our own finely-honed fascination with seeing the industry develop a commitment to positively managing staff; providing proper performance-rewards; appropriate market-based salaries; flexible and accessible leaseback car arrangements; a real commitment to flexibility for work and family purposes, and an end to the misogynist historic attitudes of the old blokes (and they’re not all blokes, as we will show) that a woman’s place is really in the home, or only at work if she can dump the kids somewhere.

We’re optimists. We want human resources people and management generally who are not antagonistic to employees. Far too often, HR people think their job is to stick it up the employees, save money, cut conditions, frustrate commitments to health and well-being, strip away cars, cheat people in job evaluations. The proper role of human resources is to recognise that employees are the most important part of the business because they are the ones who provide the services and do what the business is intended to do. There is not enough of this attitude in local government.

There is also bugger all of that attitude evident in the way the Minister for Local Government is handling the current amalgamation program. For the government, it seems it’s all about dealing with the Mayors and ignoring entirely those people responsible for providing the services. That must change.

As we head into the bold new world next year with a reduced number of councils, we can only hope that bigger councils will provide better HR management. In no other profession (sic) or occupational group is the maxim about paying peanuts and getting monkeys, more evident than HR in local government.

 

Bankstown

2014 ended with some unpleasant brawling about the inadequacy of Bankstown’s investigations policy - one which denied employees access to any investigator’s report, any findings and the reasons why those findings were made. We had two disputes over this – one about a member unfairly treated and one about the need for a review of the policies.

Bankstown didn’t like being nominated and had their lawyer make wide-ranging allegations accusing us of contempt of the Commission, amongst other things, in a relatively hysterical letter to the IRC in January which was studiously disregarded by the IRC itself.

Totally ignored, is a better way of putting it. But not by us, we kept pursuing the author of those incorrect allegations to see how things were going. Up to a point, anyway. The instructions from the GM (or HR Manager of the year, we’re not sure) that this attack be launched upon the union, inaccurate and misguided, albeit ignored by the IRC itself, gets them a nomination for 2015. Nice work, Bankstown.

Bankstown’s 2014 approach continued in 2015 as we bashed our head (with the LGEA) against the wall to convince a reluctant general manager and HR manager that their investigations policy documents needed to be reviewed and were nowhere near approaching best practice. But then, in what was clearly some sort of blinding light on the road to Damascus experience (and we hope the dumbest person in local government doesn’t yet again misunderstand that) after months of focus by the Council, they presented a number of documents to the unions and the consultative committee that were such a dramatic improvement in what they had, you wondered how it had been a problem at all.

Still, credit where credit is due.

Bathurst

Bathurst Regional Council was one of the three councils where we started the year with an industrial dispute. Given that the dispute centred around some old blokes making bad decisions about a request by a Manager to return to part-time work after her second baby, and we were a bit concerned about the old blokes’ propensity for punitive retaliation, we thought we’d repress the name of the Council. Until now.

Bathurst, or more accurately, a GM letting decisions be made by the Director Corporate Services (about to retire) and the Director of Planning (now retired) rejected a request for a part-time working week of 31 hours over four days. 31 hours, four hours fewer than the standard week and when the Manager provided a whole range of commitments about continuing to be available on her phone and her email on days off, the old blokes directed her to leave her phone at work rather than do what she had done for years to manage her 13 (yes, 13) direct reports.

So, the Council was quite happy to compromise her efficiency and effectiveness as part of rejecting her request. What century is this? And, just to make a point about what a pack of bastards they could be, they decided to withhold the changeover of her old leaseback car, just to show that they could.

In proceedings in the IRC the old blokes argued that having a Manager of Environment as a part-time position would diminish the position in the eyes of the community. A strange assertion when that position had to manage an old-fashioned structure of more direct reports than anyone else in the Council (potentially more than anyone else in the state) and when the Manager Planning and Manager Building had only a few and were paid $30,000 or more than the Manager Environment.

Three or four occasions in the IRC and the Council was on the skids. Just prior to the hearing with the Commission in Bathurst, the Council collapsed in an agreement our member had to make locally to try and get the matter resolved. In the end, it was all down to her demonstrable management capability to settle the dispute when the old blokes only wanted to contest it.

The Council was hostile and frustrating to the concept of a Manager working part-time at all (although we look forward to the MR manager’s return on part-time basis after her child) but in the end, they lost and our member returned to work, as she planned, seven months after the birth. All credit to her for taking on the ancient regime and winning.

Byron

There have been some clumsy restructures this year. Byron and Coffs Harbour are two nominations in these awards that set up two structures that could only lead to consternation. Or a good stand-up routine.

We know that the number of structures in the industry is finite and that very often what is fashionable at one time, is unfashionable in another, and that things ebb and flow.

But this year, equipped with their own consultants and a zealous commitment to their own concept of best practice, Byron decided to merge their assessment team with their fast track assessment team and Coffs decided to separate out from their assessment process, a fast track team and a team doing the rest. That’s right, diametrically opposed decisions all enthusiastically embraced by management of the respective councils as best practice. Clearly the management of Coffs and Byron had got together over some of Ballina’s pineapple cake.

At Byron, the Council has an inadequate salary system that does not provide a latitude to allow a team leader to be paid appropriately above the rate of employees they supervise. So when the two teams were to be merged, the Council believed that one of the team leaders would happily put their hand up, for no extra money at all, to take on double the number of professional staff and double the number of DAs - from 4 to 8 professional staff and from 500 or so to 1000. 

We filed a dispute, part of which successfully resolved so that three members managed to take redundancies, (costing the council something like $250,000 and losing great employees with invaluable corporate memories), from a process that began based on the importance of cutting costs. And which, in passing, reduced their commitment to bio diversity and environmental protection.

All this without HR at the Council understanding the costs that are associated with replacing existing employees. Always better to pay properly and fairly and to keep them. A lesson yet to be learned at Byron.

Remaining unresolved in the dispute which will resume in January is the downgrading of some planner positions and the assertion, contrary to the advice from the person who actually allocated the work, that there was no qualitative difference between the work allocated to grade 8 planners and grade 9 planners. Council claimed they wanted a progression arrangement and would supply guidelines, which so far, they have been unable to do. It looks like we have called their bluff.

Cessnock

An unusual Council with a poor salary system which had been constructed using OCR - one of the few job evaluation companies working in the industry, and one rejected by LGNSW and the unions in developing a job evaluation questionnaire back in the 1990s - so they would be an obvious choice to evaluate positions if you didn’t want to choose the one that the industry preferred.

In 2013 in EA discussions the Council committed to developing a new salary system, failed to do so and paid a penalty at the end of 2014 to all staff for their failure. Things were desperate, and in a decision just as bad as that to choose OCR when there was a clear preferred alternative, they chose Mercer - another consultant that couldn’t establish that their job evaluation system evaluated jobs consistent with the skill descriptors in the State Award and which was busy shutting down its capacity to provide salary surveys across the industry because of its diminishing handful of councils. Good call.

But the Council wasn’t able to get their act together sufficient to get things underway and, in a brilliant brainwave which was nearly nothing more than sleight of hand, the Council announced (without consulting the unions involved) that this would be a good opportunity to use the new non-adversarial model being encouraged by the President of the IRC.

What a smart move. A history of folly and bad decision-making, lack of application and an incapacity to deliver a salary system, and to choose a non-adversarial approach that works better when people aren’t really adversaries.

It was sleight of hand, nothing more, the Council has again paid the penalty to everyone for not having a salary system by the end of 2015 and the saga continues. But we know what shell the pea is under.

Coffs

Correspondence from Coffs invariably has so many buzzwords in it it’s like being attacked by a swarm of bees.

We’re not scoffing at Coffs Harbour for having a different approach to Byron (we’re scoffing at both of them) but we are scoffing at Coffs (Scoffs Harbour?) because of their convoluted process and the obscurantist language they use in every communication they have with their employees and their unions.

A restructuring process that has been going for more than a year and now the Council is restructuring below the level of managers. Unusually, in a time and an environment where councils are looking for flatter structures with fewer management staff and more people actually doing the work, Coffs thought it made sense to make the Council “sustainable” (financially sustainable only, they meant) by adding a new layer of management and reducing the number of operational people actually doing the work.

The Council insisted on distinguishing employees who are having “major” or “minor” changes to their work or being “severely impacted” (which sounds like they have been hit by a bus) when the Award insists on “significant effects” and where they would send us letters (my favourite, addressed to me, starts “Dear Gordon”) with things that were unclear and which, on one occasion said this:

The T2S process aims to deliver gains in efficiency through a dynamic transformation program which will include process reengineering beyond structural change. 

What?

No wonder staff don’t really know what’s going on. Buzzwords, jargon and obscurantism and all people see is a reduced number of people out there doing the work and providing the services. Just as well Council management sees it as a “dynamic” experience, because this will end in tears if they are prepared to monitor it and patch it up.

We put a settlement proposal that would protect the rates of pay of building surveyors as Current Occupant Only arrangements to allow time to see whether the process really would deliver what the Council said. When it was rejected, we filed a dispute and it was not until we were in the Commission that the Council revealed they didn’t understand our proposal. But no one thought it made sense to ring up or email to ask what it was we proposed. But they thought they understood it sufficient to reject it. As they did our request that they hold off on advertising the new positions until we have reached agreement or the Commission had resolved before us. That was a poor move as well.

LGMA

LGMA does have a new President and while it may have more heart, brain and courage, the organisation still doesn’t quite understand what it’s for. And in the last weeks, in bed with LGNSW, has suddenly discovered an interest in the welfare of senior staff when neither of those organisations were prepared to look after their interests and the security of their employment in the Standard Contracts Working Party.

LGM/PA opposed the view of the unions that term contracts should be removed and that restrictions should be placed on sacking people who should not be sacked.

Touted as an organisation committed to management excellence and rewarding it in the industry, its representatives have never quite lived up to their own hype.

It’s neither a union, nor an employer’s organisation, and the confusion about its role is nowhere more evident than when it sits representing its conflicted position on the Ministerial Advisory Council - which is meant to be the primary forum for consultation on Fit for the Future and where again, it resists protecting the interests of employees.

And while LGMA did not support the other unions in wanting mechanisms to prevent employees on standard contracts being sacked unfairly, they haven’t worked out yet that the implication of most of their members not being “senior staff” under the Act and covered by the State Award means that their constant attacks on the Award and their failure to embrace the protection of those employees in the industry means that they are not acting in the interests of the majority of their members.   Now they have discovered an interest in senior staff, in 2016 they should try harder. We look forward to them supporting the five-year template.

Mid-Western

A nomination for Mid-Western because it’s hard to imagine anything worse than sacking senior employees who haven’t done anything wrong.

A Director of Planning and a Director of Corporate Services, neither of whom performed in any way other than as good and reliable employees, sacked by the GM taking advantage of the capacity in the standard contract to sack good employees without the need for disclosing the reason. Sacking them to protect your own job as GM is allowable under the standard contract and it should not be.

And all this action while an ICAC investigation continues that began with raids on the Council Chambers and the home of the Mayor in May 2014 and which is likely to be the subject of public hearings in 2016.

None of this is news, we have reported it already, as we reported action we had taken on the unfairness of the standard contract - now settled by agreement.

Employees can’t have confidence in human resources management of a Council if a general manager is prepared to sack staff for political purposes to save his own arse.

North Sydney

North Sydney is the classic case which is the most effective argument against the Government’s commitment to the concept of a “popularly-elected” mayor. It only works if a mayor, elected by the community, can understand the concept of not having the numbers on the Council and what that means when the Councillors have a different view.

North Sydney is a Council that should have been sacked to resolve this problem in 2015. A Performance Improvement Order requiring conflict resolution processes between the mayor and councillors and between the mayor and the general manager both failed. And neither the Minister, nor the OLG, happily taking notes but otherwise comatose, had any idea what to do next.

And all the while, leaks of confidential Council matters seeking to disadvantage the majority councillors to the local rag, and insufficient respect by the mayor to the confidentiality of the conflict resolution process. We had to remind her it was a confidential process and that “this is a matter between the Council and the GM. You are the equivalent of a blowy at our picnic, uninvited and unwelcome.”

Buzz off, Jilly. Your treatment of the GM and other staff poisons the Council’s employment relationships with all staff.

OLG

OLG? More like OMG!

The great notetakers. The great monitors. The great failures in their responsibility to regulate the industry.

The industry itself has a huge “to do” list for OLG, but their capacity to sit, take notes and monitor when employees are bullied, victimised or harassed by councillors and then do absolutely nothing, is a disgrace.

Bring back the days when the OLG was an effective and accomplished regulator requiring and managing good behaviour by elected representatives. If the Council failed so significantly in its regulatory role, the OLG would be jumping all over it.

Parramatta

Councillor Paul Garrard is Lord Mayor again. He’s been a councillor for 38 years or something like that and in 2013, the last time we had bans on at Parramatta over councillors behaving badly, he was the Lord Mayor. A Lord Mayor who dabbled in the responsibilities of staff and who directed staff to be wearing ties on mufti day in case he wanted to carpet them in front of an applicant in his office.

He was a Councillor in 2000 when, for the first time, depa members placed a ban on a Councillor for bagging members in a public meeting - something that had been a chronic problem for years at the Council and continues, more than a decade and a half later. A problem so chronic, that the bans placed by members in 2000 on servicing the Councillor behaving inappropriately were welcomed by a GM frustrated in trying to have councillors acknowledge that the 1993 Act made the GM the person in charge of staff.

In 2010, depa members put bans on to keep councillors out of dabbling in development applications which may involve sex on premises - an issue that falls entirely within the responsibilities of professional staff but where councillors, showing a sordid and unseemly interest, referred at least three DAs where staff had recommended approval for peer review - which all came back supporting staff. Garrard was part of that, too.

And again now in 2015, members have bans on attending meetings with councillors where they are at risk - action taken unanimously following an invasion by the Lord Mayor into a pre-lodgement meeting on a floor where he has no security access, where access was gained by belligerently banging on a glass door for entry and demanding that staff let him in and then telling those staff that he was invited and known to be attending, when the only people who knew he was attending were the developers. A clear breach of the Council’s own policy on councillor interaction with staff.   Councillors have no role in operational matters and a councillor who wants to attend a pre-lodgement meeting, or a site meeting with another applicant, is only there to advantage the applicant contrary to their role as a public official and, at Parramatta, often without the proper disclosures.

Shoalhaven

No you can't sister, not at Shoalhaven.

Our winner last year after we had a long-running dispute with the Council over them fiddling job evaluation; downgrading positions; reluctantly admitting they got it wrong on the evaluation and then two good employees taking the opportunity to take redundancies and flee; trying to rip cars off employees who have them as a condition of employment when they get a promotional position and then giving them back when we intervene, made them a worthy winner in 2014.

But because we believe in encouragement and are optimists, we gave an acknowledgement in our January issue after GM Russell Pigg had stepped in to resolve an issue where HR had given bad advice. Credit, where credit is due. Russ thought it was a no-brainer, and easy to fix.

But...

Shoalhaven represents itself in all of its policies and publications as a progressive employer, interested in career development of professional staff, understanding the importance of attracting and retaining good staff, the importance of a good reputation within the industry and, as you so often discover, those that boast the most, often don’t live up to their claims.

In their HR commitments, Shoalhaven says, amongst other things:

  • they are committed to attracting, developing, retaining and re-engaging staff
  • the acknowledgement that “professionals… want career progression, not simply a job with Council, and will move on if they don’t achieve their progression”
  • “staff are the most important resource in everything Council strives to achieve”
  • “the Shoalhaven City Council workforce is our most valuable asset”
  • frequent references to the Council wanting to “strive to become an employer of choice”
  • to “provide quality and targeted human resource program activities and processes that position Shoalhaven City Council as a recognised employer of choice”
  • to “recruit and retain highly competent staff”
  • to “continue to benchmark Council against comparable industry conditions in order to motivate and retain employees”
  • to review and ensure equitable treatment and to “develop workplace flexibility information guidelines based on Council’s policies, which are regularly reviewed against best practice”
  • to “ensure … That Council remains competitive in the job market”
  • a commitment to “investigate the criteria for public recognition of councils HR strategies and best practice awards” so that they can “showcase Council conferences and seminars”.

So, how do they look on flexibility for work and family?

Not good in their leaseback agreement. It’s never a good leaseback agreement if the maximum time you can have the car on paid leave is six weeks unless the Director agrees to extend it is reluctant to do so.

But they look pretty good on the concept of allowing a return to work parent, coming back on part-time hours, to be able to retain the leaseback car under the leaseback policy by adjusting the costing formula for the additional days of private use - facilitative provision that should be incorporated in all leaseback policies.

So far so good, you might think - especially when the Director, to look after a highly regarded and long-serving employee agrees to extend access to the leaseback car but for only 10 weeks. Not trying hard enough but the real problem lay elsewhere.

While the Council had a leaseback policy that would allow a part-time employee returning to work to retain their Council car, the Council simply refused to exercise the prescribed option under their policy. So, both those decisions meant an employee on paid parental leave couldn’t retain the leaseback car for the duration of that paid leave and then was denied the car on their return - even though the leaseback agreement anticipates arrangements precisely like that, and even includes a formula to calculate an increased leaseback fee.

And, when the union engages with the general manager, who from now on will be known as MC Pigg (that’s male chauvinist, in case you were wondering) he sends us an email saying this:

Happy to talk Ian, but recent discussion with our Mayor (yes, she is a lady) & Councillors have indicated that Tim & I have already been too generous extending to 10 weeks. Given the context & reality of our own restructure & loss of jobs, local business closures (Paper Mill – 80 jobs), the media of Bluescope Steel in Wollongong in trouble (4,500 jobs), and the general ratepayer sentiment that staff in general have far too many benefits already I’m happy for you to take whatever actions you wish if you think that some different precedent is warranted – I’m done negotiating on this one. Speaking with a number of female staff - they are over this sort of crap too.

First of all, since 1993 this has been the GM’s call, so unnecessary to engage with the elected representatives. But thanks MC for saying you are “happy for you to take whatever actions you wish if you think that some different precedent is warranted” because we can publish this knowing you’re happy. We don’t know why you would be happy, because what you are doing is contrary to a host of boasts and commitments in HR policy documents that are clearly untruthful and misleading.

Sydney City

 

Wrong wrong wrong. And slow, slow, slow.  

Two issues disputed early this year - the first, we sprung them a section 353 policy that require the disclosure of everything contrary to the provisions of the Act, that had somehow been adopted, without consultation with the unions, when we had already had that argument back in 1995/1996 when they made the same mistake. Then we disputed their decision and they fixed it.  

Somehow the Council had reverted to the old policy without advising us as the notifier of the dispute in 95/96 or the other unions and we pursue them again to correct it. Wyong was in a similar position with a policy that was beyond the obligations and intentions of section 353 and took less than one third of the time it took Sydney to get their act together to change it. And that was with the IRC making recommendations and breathing down the City’s neck.

The second, and in parallel, a dispute over the termination of a member of ours on a term contract after having been told it would be renewed. This raised the issue of term contracts and whether they should exist at all. We took the view that the City needed to acknowledge those provisions of the State Award that proscribe where terms contracts are allowable and, by implication, where they are not.  Something that has operated successfully in the State Award for five years.

Sydney City has 400 employees on term contracts. The majority of whom are likely to be genuine permanent employees who, under the terms of the State Award would not be employed on term contracts but would be permanent staff.

It’s a strange paradox that a Council with the impressive credentials driven by the councillors and Lord Mayor in planning, public transport and energy efficiency at the same time has an HR department more accustomed to the 19th century.

But, we made Sydney City update this section 353 policy and we made them adopt the State Award tests on term contracts in a way that will see the majority of the 400 employees on term contracts acknowledged as permanent employees - and as permanent employees from the date of their first contract.

This is the sort of progressive social change the councillors would like but which HR, under what the Lord Mayor likes to describe as “the leadership of CEO Monica Barone”, fails them badly.

Tamworth

depa filed a dispute with Tamworth Regional Council late in 2014 when GM Paul Bennett wrote to the unions advising that as part of the Council’s response to Fit for the Future, he and his executive team had resolved to remove the nine day fortnight. It was asserted that this was based on the knowledge of the executive team of other councils. It was never asserted that there was a problem with customer service.

This had also been referred to the Consultative Committee but not, as you would expect in a consultative forum, in a consultative way seeking feedback. It was simply announced and, amongst other things, led to a very unpleasant tirade against our delegate, for which the GM subsequently apologised.

The Council’s behaviour in the exercise became little more than a farce. No reference in their initial correspondence to the workplace change provisions of the Award but later that seemed a good idea. Then, in the Commission in Tamworth the Council claimed there was some confusion and they didn’t intend to remove it from all indoor staff - only those who were “customer-facing”. But, while clarifying their position, they couldn’t do it that day but they would be able to do it in six weeks.

Then, six weeks later, they clarified it by identifying all of the indoor staff positions for the removal of the nine day fortnight, which was what they had originally said late last year. Uh oh…

Meanwhile, the GM had a revelation. It was clear that he hadn’t contemplated that people who have worked under a nine day fortnight for more than a decade and who have never had management identify flaws with the system and who had, particularly in the area where our members worked, introduced a range of different hours for different employees to ensure that services were provided at all times, wouldn’t like to lose it.

And, the GM was unable to establish any areas where there had been an identifiable problem or a complication in the provision of Council services. Not one. And he couldn’t even find a problem when he had Dorothy Dix design a survey for the local developers and lawyers.

The GM obviously thought, just like the way he had presented this fate accompli to the Consultative Committee, if he had decided to take it away, the staff and their representatives should meekly fall into line.

So, four occasions in the IRC and another fruitless trip to Tamworth for the GM to advise that this was never his idea at all, so we adjourned into disarray.

And shortly after, meekly and more with a whimper than a bang, the GM emailed all staff because of his concern about the effect on “morale”, he wouldn’t proceed to remove the nine day fortnight.

Advice that he still hasn’t provided formally to us as the notifier of the dispute. That would probably hurt far too much - an acknowledgement that we were right all along and he was wrong.

Clumsy, thoughtless, no evidence for the removal in the first place and a revelation that “I would prefer not to pursue the transition of existing staff to a 19 day month due to the impact it is having on our culture.” Well, durr.

And the winner is...

A momentous day for Shoalhaven, for the second year in a row the team at Shoalhaven have taken out the 2015 Golden Turd.

This award goes to the HR people who drafted the commitments they don’t comply with, to the executive team and management who endorsed those policies and don’t comply with them, to the Mayor “yes, she is a lady”, Councillor Gash, who should know better and even to the “number of female staff” who, like MC Pigg “are over this sort of crap too”.

It’s not crap, it’s the modern world. It’s consistent with the commitments of the parties to the State Award and the Council’s obligations to “ensure and facilitate flexibility for work and family responsibilities”; it’s all about attracting, retaining; building good career paths; not losing good staff; establishing a reputation that will ensure the Council is an employer of choice; successfully benchmarked against other employers, and benchmarked to ensure best practice.

And if you don’t believe any of that crap, change it. Stop posturing with policies boasting things you don’t provide or someone might take you on for the lack of truth in your advertising…

Shame on Shoalhaven. Shame on you MC Pigg, and you Councillor Gash and the unidentified cohort of “female staff” who share your view that this is crap. Maybe in 2016 MC Pigg could do a little bit of feminist consciousness raising so that he feels more comfortable using the word woman than lady or female. No one says gentleman or male staff, do they.

Time to redraft those policies so you have something you can comply with - or get your act together, join the 21st century and look after your staff in 2016.

Councillor Joanna Gash and MC Pigg presenting on how to be an employer of choice

Well, that’s the end of the year for us

The office will close after lunch on Thursday 24 December and reopen in a leisurely and January kind of way on Wednesday 6 January.

All of us here at depa, Margaret and I, and the members of the Committee of Management, wish you all a fabulous, family-filled, loving and relaxing Christmas/Xmas/winter solstice or whatever, and New Year, and an interesting and challenging 2016 ahead for all of us.

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