Tweed Shire is the most hazardous workplace for depa members in NSW

Tweed Shire GM Troy Green

There won’t be any teasing buildup, listing nominees and identifying their inadequacies (although they do get a brief mention at the end of this) we are cutting to the chase here.  Tweed Shire wins the 2017 award for the Worst HR in Local Government by a margin so significant, no one else was in the race.

Tweed, and in particular the Building and Environmental Health Unit has the worst culture of workforce bullying depa has seen in the last three decades.  And, to make matters worse, an unacceptably slow and almost begrudging acceptance by the GM and others that something needed to be done.

This all began for our members (and those were not members of ours and in the admin staff) in 2015 with the appointment of a new Manager Building and Environmental Unit.  But it was not until February this year got a we started to get the first phone calls from members wanting to speak confidentially, fearing our involvement (one member was told by the manager that if he was going to get advice from the union, he needed to tell the manager first!), cowed, anxious and having had enough.  For some members, so distressed and anxious were they about retribution, that conversations were difficult and many couldn’t be finished.

There is a limit, given our commitment to protect the health and wellbeing of our members, to how many confidential calls we can manage before we act.  We could handle one, maybe two, but beyond that something clearly needed to be done.
There had been changes to the structure without advice to depa contrary to their obligations under the Award, one employee (not a member of ours) had been moved (largely against her wishes professionally but satisfying a desire to get away from the manager), work was redistributed to people already overworked, all against a background of low morale and the new manager’s unusual communication and management style.
Already by this stage a number of employees had sought advice and assistance from the manager HR, the director and even the GM.  The Council has claimed that they had no formal claims or allegations to investigate but just as we can’t ignore confidential approaches and at some stage need to do something, neither should the Council ignore them.
They could ignore one, or two, but by our counting there were more than 11 people who had approached the triumvirate of GM, director and manager HR for help, either individually or collectively - and while the Council argued that they did do some things, they continued to argue they couldn’t do anything because nothing was formal.  They were aware of the problem, they failed to fix it.

One of our members brought the matter to a head with allegations of bullying and harassment.  We became involved and out of that involvement the Council agreed to have a review of the change process, but only in relation to the Environmental Health section of the Unit.
Our member who provided the impetus for this review has been on sick leave on and off since April and on workers' compensation continuously since May - with the Council and their insurer StateCover in June accepting that they had been injured in the workplace and by the manager.  This was to be our first member sufficiently damaged the have a workers’ compensation claim accepted.

And the phone calls from members kept coming, confidentially of course and on 31 May, just before the external consultant was to conduct the review I took the unusual step of emailing all members asking if they were okay and whether they wanted us to do something.  The protection of confidentiality confirmed that they did.  And didn’t they unload on what had been an horrific time for them going back over the two years.  They tried to manage it and cope, but received no assistance from the Council, and could cope no longer...

The next day the GM set the tone for how they would respond to our concerns in a letter of response berating depa for communicating with members on the eve of the Independent review in a way which “has the potential to compromise the integrity and independence of the review process and as such directly or indirectly negatively impact the health and well-being of Council staff.”

We live with the continuing regret that we didn’t file a dispute then, to get the whole thing into the IRC in an open and public way and have the IRC assist the management of the issue. We may have been able to better protect our injured members.

Interestingly the GM committed to address the problem and asserted that their commitment “is practically demonstrated by the time, money and resources committed to the review process currently underway.”  The GM can now show us how much that commitment has cost, both in time, money and resources.  Come on Troy, what have you spent so far?

It then emerged that the review was not going to interview those employees in the Building section, nor the admin staff, nor transferred staff, nor anyone who had left the organisation unhappy about the change in managerial style.  We were able to have a Council agree to broaden the review to cover the building staff and the admin staff but not transferred staff or those who had fled the organisation.  Why would the Council want the consultant to talk to them when they already knew what the consultant would find?

It was clear that management at the Council, particularly the GM, the Director and the HR Manager, were keen to remain part of the problem rather than part of the solution and by this stage we knew at least seven people had made complaints to the triumvirate.  On 18 July we wrote to the GM under the heading “the emerging evidence of the hazards of working at Tweed” imposing deadlines to be provided with the relevant reports into the injured worker and the conclusions of the review and we met at Murwillumbah on 27 July - from 11 to 3:30, largely without lunch punctuated by arguments about having access to documents for fear that we would misuse them.

The GM agreed to take some immediate steps to reduce the hazards in the workplace while a consultant tried to rebuild workplace relationships, mentor and help the manager work on his empathy and self-awareness, conduct workshops for all staff to assist them develop a resilience and assertiveness to allow them to tell the manager when his behaviour was unacceptable or hurtful, so they could become part of the therapy.  Lovely.

The GM agreed that the manager would be directed not to have one-on-one meetings, nor meetings with staff in his office with the door closed and to discourage the manager from getting others to interrogate employees about what they were saying in what the manager thought looked like suspicious circumstances.  Please, how was this allowed to develop?  These were intended to be temporary arrangements, but they continue six months later...

And it hasn’t got any better.  We now have a second member off work on workers' compensation with the Council and StateCover also acknowledging that the same manager was responsible for the injury.  Significantly, the injury occurred during the mentoring,  during the significant hands-on assistance provided by the consultant to the manager and support to employees both through the EAP and, for at least four of our members, seeking advice and assistance from the external consultant as well.  A proper costing of this exercise will reveal that it has cost the Council a fortune.

The Council is lucky that it’s only two of our members on workers' compensation.  One of those is unlikely to return at all but the other has high hopes to return to safe work and a hazard-free workplace. One member preferred to remain at the Council but to restructure to avoid having to report to the manager and this has provided temporary respite, and a fourth yesterday said to me that the manager now rarely comes out of his office and employees can go to the lunchroom without being scared.  That’s all good news, of course, but how much of a solution is locking the manager up?

This is the most hazardous workplace for our members in New South Wales, the GM is responsible for allowing it to develop, failing to manage it and failing to remove the problem.  It is something that he knew about from late 2015.  We have 509 emails in our Tweed file since March and we don’t keep them all.

And while the GM was responsible for allowing it, the director and the HR manager were complicit by defending their inaction because they didn’t have a formal complaint, and being part of the problem.

Two accepted workers' compensation claims, one member temporarily safe by restructuring the job to remove one-on-one contact and others, thinking things are okay because the temporary rules about no one-on-one meetings, no closed-door meetings continue six months later and look like continuing well into 2019.  Clearly there was a simpler solution? 

What about the others?

Campbelltown lumbers on with the glacier-like pace of their restructure and replacement of experienced employees lost more than a year ago, but have redeemed themselves a bit and don’t get nominated by doing the right thing for a member mum returning to work on a two-day week part-time basis; Murray River has been exposed for stealing hours from workers by making them work 36 hours a week instead of 35 and then been largely uncooperative about trying to resolve it, and it’s a problem that goes back for many years at the former Murray Shire; and Sydney City, which simply can’t help itself and continues to present as a Council with an admirable and progressive approach to planning, transport, climate change and making Sydney a more attractive city but with employment conditions and an Award that sits more appropriately in the 1960s and a hostility to the significant and progressive changes in the State Award over the last 10 or 20 years.
But really, none of these places injure their employees like Tweed does.

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